A study of adolescent mental health in the UK has found that cases of high depressive symptoms would likely be around 6% lower if the pandemic had not happened, and suggest young girls were more negatively impacted than their male peers.
University College London researchers compared the wellbeing of around 5,000 teens in a natural school-based environment during the pandemic with adolescent mental health during non-pandemic times.
Students from five schools were subject to three different mental health and wellbeing interventions (mindfulness, relaxation and strategies for safety and wellbeing) and organised into two parallel-group cluster randomised controlled trials (RCTs). They then gave periodic responses to online surveys.
“Exploratory analyses suggest that the impact of the pandemic may have been greater in females, with females exposed to the pandemic showing greater depressive symptoms, externalising difficulties and lower wellbeing,” the paper said.
“Adolescents of higher socio-economic position showed a greater difference in life satisfaction between the control and COVID-19 group.”
The UK-based study was also able to use data from an ongoing regional cohort collected for the Wirral Child Health and Development Study.
The findings of the observational study estimated higher depressive symptoms, post-traumatic stress disorder and externalising difficulties, and lower life satisfaction for youths who experienced the pandemic years.
“The pandemic has led to a deterioration of mental health in this population beyond what would have been expected based on existing trends. However, there was no main effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on adolescent externalising difficulties,” the paper said.
In 2017 rising mental health problems among UK teens (aged 11-19) saw between 14 and 17% of adolescents meet the diagnostic criteria for at least one mental health disorder. And other cross cohort studies over time have shown a deterioration of adolescent mental health in England.
“Despite widespread concern and media coverage about the impact of COVID-19 and related school closures on adolescent mental health, there remains limited robust empirical evidence that can causally attribute mental health changes to the pandemic,” the researchers said, noting a literature review found only four other comparable international studies including one from Australia that reported increased ‘internalising symptoms’.
The other studies, conducted in Spain, China and the Netherlands, also reported mixed findings.
“More recently, results from a longitudinal, population-based study in Iceland revealed trajectories of pre-pandemic depressive symptoms between 2016 and 2018 and during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Adolescents aged 13–18 years reported significantly more depressive symptoms during the pandemic, and mental well-being decreased beyond what might be expected based on existing time trends of adolescent mental health,” the paper said.
According to study authors Rosie Mansfield, Joao Santos, Jessica Deighton, Daniel Hayes, Tjasa Velikonja, Jan Boehnke and Praveetha Patalay, the main challenge was to differentiate between developmental change and the impact of the pandemic on mental health.
“To isolate the pandemic’s effect, studies must include pre-pandemic assessments of symptoms and account for age effects given known developmental patterns in mental health difficulties,” the paper said.
The authors also recommended that better systems for supporting student mental health would have been possible with clearer guidance and increased funding for schools.
The study was supported by the UK department for education published in the Royal Society Open Science journal on Wednesday.