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Kids were lonely before COVID-19. The pandemic has made things worse.

A young boy wearing khaki pants and a reddish shirt holds hands with his mom, who's wearing a bright sweater. They face away from the camera, walking down a hall that's dotted with backups hung on hooks.
Keren Carrión
Some North Texas mental health professionals are reporting a spike in children suffering from social anxiety and depression with no previous history of mental health concerns.

A note to readers: this story discusses suicide.

The surgeon general just issued a warning that young people are facing “devastating” mental health effects as a result of the challenges experienced by their generation, including the coronavirus pandemic.

The 53-page report said emergency room visits for suicide attempts rose 51% for adolescent girls in early 2021 as compared to the same period in 2019. The figure rose 4% for boys.

Families are seeking help for their children in record numbers at Children’s Health in Dallas. The outpatient clinic has been at capacity for more than a year.

“One of the biggest symptoms of depression is isolation,” said Roshini Kumar, Clinical Manager of Outpatient Psychology and Suicide Prevention and Resilience at Children's Health. She reports a spike in children suffering from social anxiety and depression with no previous history of mental health concerns.

A grueling couple of years

Shan’ya Taylor, 14, spent most of last school year in her room: sleeping, watching television and writing.

“If I didn’t want to talk to my parents or my sister, I would just write in here. I'm good at hiding,” she said. She’s in ninth grade at Red Oak High School. “It was hard. It was confusing, stressful, depression. It was so hard.”

Shan’ya’s parents wanted their children to be vaccinated before sending them back to school in person. Mom Andryan Simpson said not being around her classmates really affected her daughter.

“Her grades were showing, her self-esteem, her lack of communication. She was rebelling against it majorly,” Simpson said. Even though Shan’ya is back in school now, Simpson said she still thinks her daughter is lonely.

Andryan Simpson, wearing a leopard print dress, delicate gold necklace and glasses smiles next to her daughter, Shan’ya Taylor who is 14. She's wearing a long-sleeved black t-shirt, stacked bracelets and hoop earrings.
Sujata Dand
KERA special contributor
Shan’ya Taylor's mom, Andryan Simpson, wanted her daughter to be vaccinated before sending her back to school in person. All that time without her classmates was really hard on Shan’ya, who's 14.

Dr. Madhukar Trivedi, Director of the Center for Depression Research and Clinical Care at UT Southwestern Medical Center, said kids are struggling.

“My fear is that this is going to leave residual problems for a long time,” Trivedi said.

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Youth loneliness and its years-long upward trend

A looming concern for mental health experts is that loneliness in adolescents has been increasing for the last decade. A new study in the Journal of Adolescence surveyed more than a million teenagers worldwide. In 2018, nearly twice as many teens displayed elevated levels of loneliness compared to 2012. 2012 was also the year when smartphone ownership passed 50% in the U.S.

Before that, loneliness and depression among teens had been unchanged or down for several years.

Experts say screen time may also be taking the place of activities important for physical and mental well-being, including sleep, exercise and in-person activity. Kumar has worked with kids who have felt hopeless, and has found ways for them to foster connections.

“Therapy is not always in an office. It can be yoga. It can be soccer. There’s also a lot of evidence-based ways that we can pull ourselves out of it.”

But, that means prioritizing well-being for everyone — kids included. And experts say pandemic or not, that need won’t disappear.

If you need help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255