There is a tidal wave of mental illness flooding the United States. In the midst of COVID-19, depression among teens is higher than any other age group. Many strategies exist to help parents who want to assist their children through these difficult times.
Two areas of importance are consistent aerobic exercise and a healthy sleep schedule. Optimizing both exercise and sleep can be particularly effective in the treatment of mood fluctuations as well as anxiety in teens.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 50% of Americans will be diagnosed with a mental health problem sometime in their life. If this seismic statistic were not sufficiently startling, consider that Robert Klitzman, professor of psychiatry at Columbia University, estimates “that about 50% of the U.S. population is experiencing depressive symptoms” during the pandemic.
Adolescents have the dubious distinction of composing the largest component of this nationwide depression. Below are some suggestions for parents to help their children stay mentally strong during this trying time.
Strategies for coping
Parents have an array of effective strategies they can employ to counter teen depression and anxiety during the pandemic. Approaches include encouraging appropriately distanced social connection, prioritizing physical activity, promoting sufficient quantity of sleep, setting limits on screen time, as well as praising good behavior and pointing out strengths.
Additionally, it is vital to listen and speak to your child with love and respect and help your teen examine problems in a more positive light.
Support your child with safe and distanced social interactions either virtually or in person. One idea is finding a sport that is practiced outdoors with individualized drills, which can still encourage socialization even if the sport is practiced at a distance while at the same time integrating aerobic activity.
Studies have shown that exercise has a positive effect in reducing mental illness such as depression, anxiety and ADHD, as well as improving sleep. A study at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has demonstrated that walking for an hour or running for 15 minutes significantly reduces the risk of major depression. An athletic routine can drastically reduce the chances of onset or continuation of depressive symptoms.
In many cases, consistent exercise can reduce depression as well as relapses of depressive episodes. Exercise furthermore promotes positive changes in brain growth, including neuronal growth, reduced inflammation and the release of endorphins, which are brain chemicals that increase well-being.
Finally, exercise can provide a diversion from ruminative and negative thoughts. Parents can support their teens in explaining to them that exercise can help improve their memory and sleep quality, feel more relaxed in social situations, be stronger and gain a more positive outlook in day-to-day life.
Teens and sleep
Be prepared for your teens to have disrupted sleep as they transition back to school. During COVID-19-induced closures, many teens experience what is called a “phase shift” or “phase delay,” going to bed late in the evening and sleeping in until even the afternoon. When students then return to school, this sleep pattern will be interrupted.
It is very important for parents to encourage healthy sleep hygiene practices for this reason. Most important is consistency; have your teen go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.
Moreover, care should be given to light exposure in the evening before bedtime. If needed, parents should take the authority to restrict cellphone and computer use for an hour before bedtime. This may include even turning off the Wi-Fi in the home to decrease cellphone use on a restricted schedule. The body’s circadian clock interprets light, or the absence of light, as a signal when to sleep or be awake. Some light frequencies, such as those found in electronic devices, work against the drive to sleep at night and therefore should be avoided before going to bed.
Respected sources attest that exercise can be as effective in dealing with depression as pharmaceuticals. Outdoor exercise while being socially distanced with team members encourages social interaction, and being outdoors is intrinsically mentally soothing. Additionally, parents should do their utmost to enforce good sleep hygiene. Enforcing a consistent sleep schedule and limiting cellphone and computer use before bedtime is vital.
Danielle Kamis, M.D., is a Stanford University-trained psychiatrist and NCAA All-American fencer who specializes in sports psychiatry in her private practice in Los Altos. For more information, visit