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Adolescents' mental well-being should be a focus of public health, UBC researcher finds

Adolescents with worse mental health pre-pandemic actually fared better during the pandemic
Youth mental health stock
A sociologist with the University of British Columbia has found adolescents who had worse mental health before the coronavirus pandemic fared better.

The host of fears and social isolation created by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has been hard on everyone but new research out of the Univerity of British Columbia shows it’s the kids who really aren’t alright.

The study, published this week in the Journal of Adolescent Health, fills an important gap in research examining adolescent mental health during the pandemic according to a UBC release. The researchers analyzed data from a nationally representative survey involving 886 adolescents in the United Kingdom -- aged 10 to 16 -- who were surveyed before and during the pandemic. While the study was conducted using U.K. data, the findings flag disparities in the impact across social, demographic and economic groups that are applicable to Canada and the rest of the world the release states.

In a bizarre twist, the research found that adolescents who were in a good headspace before COVID-19 suffered a decline during the pandemic, whereas those with poor mental health fared better. 

Problems interacting with peers and friends

Dr. Yue Qian, a UBC sociologist who co-authored the study explained while those with decent mental health struggled more emotionally, they were more likely to share and help others during the pandemic.

“We found that adolescents with better than average mental health before the pandemic experienced an increase in their emotional and conduct problems, hyperactivity and problems interacting with their peers and friends,” Qian said.

In contrast, adolescents with lower than average mental health pre-pandemic experienced the opposite. The study posits that this could be because they had more time at home with greater parental supervision and this prevented things like fighting or bullying.

Parents’ socioeconomic positions

The pandemic’s impact on adolescent mental health varied with parents’ socioeconomic positions the study found. For instance, young people with high-earning parents experienced a bigger reduction in conduct problems and a smaller increase in hyperactivity and problems interacting with their peers and friends, compared with those in low-income families.

It noted, young people from less well-off families experienced a much greater mental health decline during the pandemic than before.

Those living in one-parent households experienced a greater increase in problems interacting with peers and friends — as well as feeling lonely.

More susceptible to being bullied

Though adolescents are unlikely to contract COVID-19 or become severely ill as a result of catching the coronavirus, the research found that when a family member contracted the virus, it took a toll on the young people too. The study suggests the linked self-isolation, social distancing and stigmas might make them susceptible to being bullied and socially marginalized.

The researchers say the findings underline the need to go beyond a ‘one-size-fits-all approach’ and adopt tailored mental health support for adolescents and targeted measures to mitigate inequalities in the mental health impact of the pandemic.

“Adolescents are at a critical stage of their lives and the detrimental impact of the pandemic on their mental health can undermine their immediate wellbeing and harm their long-term development,” says Qian. “It is clear from our findings that efforts should be made to mitigate the mental health impact of the pandemic on children and adolescents – an issue that has not yet been featured in key public health and policy conversations.”

“Our findings urge policymakers to mitigate disparities in the pandemic’s impact on adolescent mental health, interrogate how these disparities are rooted in pre-pandemic socioeconomic inequalities, and intervene in future inequalities that may arise,” Qian said.