Millions of teens suffering mentally and physically during pandemic

Three in four

Adam Saville
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Millions of teens suffering mentally and physically during pandemic

Bupa launches Teen Minds campaign to support families and children with mental health services

Physical symptoms such as hair loss, digestive problems, migraines, and lethargy or weight changes linked to poor mental health have been rife among teenagers during the pandemic, new research by Bupa has revealed.  

According to the survey of 1000 UK teenagers and 1000 parents, three in four 13 to 19 year olds have experienced physical health issues related to poor mental health since start the start of the crisis in March 2020.

This equates to an estimated 4.1 million young people facing symptoms of poor mental health over the past 10 months, with around 3.9 million seeing them manifest as physical ailments.  

Just under a third (30%) of those experiencing poor mental health said they had not experienced it before the pandemic.

According to the study carried out for Bupa's Teen Minds: Living Through a Pandemic and Beyond campaign, the most common mental health-related physical symptoms for teenagers are headaches/migraines (31%), skin breakouts (26%), lethargy/tiredness (28%) and weight gain (26%), while as many as 13% said they were suffering from panic attacks.

The study found that 76% of teens were experiencing at least one physical symptom, with others including digestive issues (12%), muscle pain (12%) and hair loss (6%).

Lockdown life

The study found that worries related to the impact of the pandemic on academic achievements (73%) and job prospects (70%) were weighing heavily on young people's minds, particular among 16-17 years olds. The majority of teens (57%) said they were not optimistic - or unsure - about their future.

Many teenagers have struggled with national restrictions, especially while being ‘stuck' in the family home (47%) or socialising less with friends (55%) and feeling ‘powerless' to the situation (31%). More than half of teens have felt in a state of limbo, while three in 10 (30%) said they are missing out on life as a result of the pandemic.

Coping strategies

The Bupa study also revealed that 52% of teenagers have turned to harmful coping mechanisms during the crisis, such as controlling or restricting their food intake, picking their skin (excoriation), pulling out their hair (trichotillomania) and self-harm.

Almost one in 10 had turned to alcohol, 7% have smoked cigarettes and 3% admitted to taking illegal substances.

However, the research also found many teenagers are taking positive action to manage their mental health. Almost half (49%) have channelled poor mental health into exercise, while others have socialised virtually with friends (34%), focused on school work (18%), reading (21%) and one in 10 have started a new hobby or learnt a new skill (9%).

And for 44% of teenagers, lockdown has made them more likely to discuss their mental health generally. Although, 34% said they are struggling to confide in their parents, with 29% feeling as if their parents would not understand what they are going through

‘Big challenge'

"The impact of the pandemic on mental health has been well documented and teenagers have experienced disproportionate levels of uncertainty during the pandemic, and at an already emotionally turbulent stage in life," Pablo Vandenabeele, clinical director for Mental Health at Bupa Insurance. "It's worrying to see that their mental and physical health has deteriorated so much over this period. What we have seen, both in our research, and speaking with customers over the course of the pandemic, is that parents find this a big challenge, and they are looking for more support on how to manage discussions about their teenager's mental wellbeing."

According to Vandenabeele, Bupa has been investing in its mental health services for its UK health insurance customers, including cover for more conditions, ongoing support for longer term conditions and further support to families who are worried about their child's mental wellbeing through its Family Mental HealthLine.

He continued: "Teenage behaviour is often filled with highs and lows so sometimes it may be difficult for parents to distinguish between this and symptoms of mental ill-heath. Particularly at a time of such uncertainty, with further lockdown restrictions expected, and many returning to school. Our advice to parents is to stay vigilant for warning signs of something more serious affecting your child. Are they showing signs of regular low mood or physical symptoms like weight loss or gain or lethargy? And how long has it been going on for?

"If your child is struggling and you've noticed it persisting for more than two weeks, starting a conversation with them is the first step. It is also important to recognise when to seek medical help. Early diagnosis can lead to a better long-term prognosis for mental health conditions, which can help your teenager and your family return to their ‘normal' as soon as they can."

‘Start an open conversation'

Dr Lucy Foulkes, Teen Psychologist, said: "The Covid-19 pandemic has been incredibly difficult for many teenagers so it's understandable that this has taken a toll on their mental and physical health. From this research, it's particularly useful and important to learn about coping mechanisms. Some young people might be coping in unhealthy ways - such as by restricting eating or self-harming - and if parents are concerned, they should start an open conversation about it and seek professional advice if needed.

"It's encouraging to note that many young people are coping in positive ways - like  exercising,  spending  time  with friends (sometimes online), and taking up new hobbies. The pandemic could therefore be an opportunity to check in with teenagers and have a discussion about helpful and unhelpful ways of looking after yourself during periods of stress and difficulty."

Stephen Buckley, head of Information at Mind added: "At Mind we've seen a huge increase in young people telling us about mental health issues - this group has been hit with some of the biggest changes to their normal lives, as well as a lack of agency or ability to make decisions for themselves.

"So it's encouraging to see that many parents are planning to address these issues and have important mental health conversations with their children. I'd encourage parents to take the lead in this, as we all know that teenagers can be reticent, or may not have the words, to say how they really feel. But by making these conversations feel normal and everyday, we can help make sure that those who need help receive it."

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