Kids in Crisis—The Pandemic’s Toll on Childhood Mental Health

Childhood Mental Health

As much as everyone wishes discussions about the COVID-19 pandemic could be a thing of the past, the reality is that the consequences—not only of the virus but also from what we endured—will continue to be a part of the conversation for years to come.

Even though many places have returned to at least some semblance of “normal” as things reopen and everyone tries to get back on track, many people still struggle with the stress of the past year and a half. And there isn’t a more vulnerable population doing just that than the children and adolescents around the globe whose lives were greatly disrupted by the pandemic.

A study recently published in JAMA Pediatrics tells us just how profound the toll on the mental health of children has been. Through what is called a meta-analysis, meaning a review of multiple studies on a particular topic, the researchers analyzed 29 studies on anxiety and depression in children and adolescents from January 2020 to February 2021. Altogether, this encompassed 80,879 youth participants from North America, Europe, and other parts of the world.

The outcome of this study found that rates of anxiety and depression in children between the ages of 4 and 17 had nearly doubled during the above-referenced time period, compared to pre-pandemic levels. This means:

  • Cases of depression rose from 12.9% to 25.2%
  • Anxiety cases increased from 11.6% to 20.5%

According to the researcher’s data, 1 out of every 5 kids has experienced an increase in anxiety symptoms, while 1 in 4 teens are suffering from depression. The prevalence of both conditions was higher in females—although that is consistent with statistics from previous years.

Pandemic Stressors Contributing to Mental Health Problems

As with adults, children had to find ways to psychologically manage the unprecedented conditions necessitated by the pandemic. However, by virtue of their age, most kids don’t possess mature coping mechanisms, so the stressors likely exacerbated mental health problems for many of them.

By virtue of their age, most kids don’t possess mature coping mechanisms, so the stressors of the pandemic likely exacerbated mental health problems for many of them. Click To Tweet

For instance, children need consistency in their lives in order for them to feel safe. However, the ongoing uncertainty prevented many from having the schedules and predictability they had been used to. In addition, changes to their lifestyles and home environments likely compounded the emotional strain that kids had to endure, including challenges such as these:

  • School closures/remote learning
  • Lack of regular routines
  • Social isolation and inability to interact with peers
  • Absence of extra-curricular activities
  • Missed milestones, like graduations and birthday parties
  • Household stress and financial problems

Also, many children get specific needs met at school, including support from teachers and coaches, as well as receiving services for mental health. The absence of having these buffering relationships was an added challenge to their resilience.

Signs of Anxiety and Depression to Watch For

When children or teens have anxiety, it often manifests as having uncontrollable worries and feeling fearful, as well as hyperarousal which can present itself as:

  • Being easily startled or frightened
  • Problems sleeping
  • Irritability and/or outbursts of anger
  • Having trouble with concentration

Kids who are struggling with depression tend to show symptoms of:

  • Lost interest in the things they normally enjoy doing
  • Sadness
  • Increased or decreased appetite
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia (sleeping too much)
  • Isolating (intentionally) and not spending time or communicating with their friends as often

While there is more freedom to move about now, the ongoing unpredictability of the pandemic and the related stressors are destabilizing for many kids. This can lead to feelings of hopelessness, which is one of the primary indicators of suicidal thoughts.

To that point, in May of 2021, Jena Hausmann, the CEO of Children’s Hospital Colorado declared that they were in a youth mental health “State of Emergency.” The demand for the hospital’s in-patient and out-patient services exceeded its capacity. Very sadly, by that point in time, suicide had become the #1 cause of death for children in Colorado.

Supporting Children in the New Normal

Talking to your children about their concerns and fears, while validating their feelings can provide an element of safety and comfort for them. Getting them back into a daily routine for school, meals, homework, screen time, and sleep will help give them a sense of control and the much-needed structure that was lost for the past 18 months.

Most of all, if you notice new behavior problems or any of the symptoms listed above, be open and honest with your child and take the necessary steps to get them the help and professional support they need.

Depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues can’t wait. At Amen Clinics, we’re here for you. We offer in-clinic brain scanning and appointments, as well as mental telehealth, clinical evaluations, and therapy for adults, teens, children, and couples. Find out more by speaking to a specialist today at 888-288-9834 or visit our contact page here.


  1. Dr Amen , why are you not speaking out about the harm being done to our children by masking them? They need to breath for their healthy brain development. They need to see facial expressions and facial cues to learn and navigate life.

    Comment by Elaine Barsotti — September 8, 2021 @ 4:03 AM

  2. My 18 year old granddaughter committed suicide this past April. We didn’t see because of the isolation

    Comment by Mary — September 8, 2021 @ 7:00 AM

  3. All the more reason to have a clinic in Denver, Colorado. I called Amen Clinic, and spoke with one of your advisors in January 2021 and mentioned that suicide was the #1 cause of death in young people. Sadly, our state needs help,

    Comment by Elvera Sciarra — September 8, 2021 @ 7:30 AM

  4. Thanks for these facts, but why are you silent about the effect on children who are being given this covid shot? World scientists are warning us about the dangers of this shot to any young person.

    Comment by Tommy — September 8, 2021 @ 8:14 AM

  5. Another major stressor that I do not see addressed is that parents and others talk very freely in front of children. They talk about the chaos and uncertainties, they talk about school changes, can’t visit grandparents, can’t go here or there, death, so many are dying, who can we trust, vaccines are killing people or the unvaccinated are dying. This is too much! Parents, please do not talk freely in front of your children. They do not have the ability to process the information, as even adults are struggling to do this. Guard your conversations. Protect your children!

    Comment by Lori Balbuena — September 9, 2021 @ 8:34 AM

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