Study to investigate adolescent mental health during the pandemic

Tara Haelle

About Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle (@TaraHaelle) is AHCJ's medical studies core topic leader, guiding journalists through the jargon-filled shorthand of science and research and enabling them to translate the evidence into accurate information.

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Photo: Mary Lock via Flickr

Much advice has appeared in the media over the past two months about how to manage anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges during the coronavirus pandemic.

Plenty of speculation, particularly on social media, has accompanied it: Will suicide rates increase? Will adolescent suicide rates decline with increased supervision? Will prescriptions for antidepressants rise? Will this trend revolutionize telemedicine in mental health?

But speculation and advice only go so far without data. Journalists need to keep an eye out for publications and studies now beginning to investigate mental health changes and outcomes during the pandemic in a systematic way. One such study, led by Elaine Fox, a professor of psychology and affective neuroscience at the University of Oxford, will focus on teens’ mental health during the pandemic.

Adolescence already is an incredibly vulnerable and challenging period in life — many psychiatric conditions first begin to manifest during adolescence — and the pandemic has the potential to have particularly hard effects on teens and young adults. For one thing, it may substantially interrupt their high school education, plans for college, early work experiences and other activities that may influence their future careers.

Teens are in the phase of just becoming more aware of the world outside their bubble, developing their identities and wrangling with existential questions that the life during the pandemic may greatly influence. While younger children are especially resilient and adaptable in times like these, teens may be more sensitive to the restrictions from lockdown orders and social distancing recommendations. That makes them an important population to study.

The study, Oxford ARC, stands for Oxford Achieving Resilience during COVID-19 and is funded by the Economic & Social Research Council. It will focus mainly on the factors and characteristics that promote and impede resilience during the pandemic. The study will “assess common mental health problems relating to worry, anxiety, depression, eating-related problems and mental inflexibility, as well as examining how various activities, such as social media use, video conferencing and exercise, affects young people’s mental health,” according to a press release.

The Oxford research is one of hopefully dozens, perhaps hundreds, of studies that will look at the many ways the coronavirus pandemic is affecting mental health. Based on what researchers have learned about trauma, changes in brain chemistry, epigenetic and the links between mental and physical health, these impacts have the potential for lifelong. possibly even multi-generational, ripples. The more data that researchers begin collecting now, the more they will be able to learn, and journalists can explore, the perpetually undercovered topic of mental health.

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