Depression in U.S Adolescents during the Pandemic and how it has Affected their Academics

Elizabeth Ann Carter

Personal Statement

This paper thoroughly expanded my understanding of depression and its prevalence in the U.S. I learned about how depression rates are measured, what may cause it, and how it can affect daily life. In focusing on adolescent depression during the pandemic and academic performance as a result, I learned more about how myself (being 17) and my peers have been affected by the pandemic mentally. It has given me a better understanding on the toll the pandemic has taken on mental health across America.


The COVID-19 virus, which first emerged at the end of 2019 and has since been a very prevalent and life changing worldwide crisis, may have a significant impact on the mental health of adolescents. Various circumstances and dilemmas that the pandemic has made into reality may have caused many adolescents in America and across the world to develop symptoms of depression. This paper’s main objective is to discuss the effects that the pandemic has had on depression rates in adolescents in the United States and how depression during the pandemic has affected their academic performance. Present studies demonstrating recent depression rates in teenagers included in the paper largely are recorded through the reports of one or more depressive episodes during a set period of time; they have demonstrated that not only have adolescent depression rates increased from 2019 before the pandemic to 2020 at the height of the pandemic but have also been increasing for the last 13 years. Additionally, recorded decreases in academic performance in the U.S during 2020 and 2021 indicate that the pandemic has been the cause, likely due to the effect it has had on the mental health of adolescent students.

The COVID-19 virus, emerging near the end of 2019, has run rampant across the world. The pandemic caused America to shut down in March of 2020 and other countries at roughly around the same time. The shut-down of businesses and schools across the country and worldwide confined everybody in their homes. For adolescents, this meant that their developing social lives and learning journey were completely put to a halt, inevitably taking a toll on their mental health. The pandemic not only has infected and killed countless lives globally but has caused an increase in depression rates in adolescents. Although the pandemic may have served as a positive circumstance for the betterment of some adolescents’ mental health, it has served as a major blow for a much greater number. Additionally, adolescent depression during the pandemic is tied to their recent negative academic performance.

An Increase in Depression During the 2020 COVID-19 Pandemic

Depression is one of the most common mental illnesses in the world. It is characterized by feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and helplessness (Khurshid et al., 2015). In the past few years, depression rates in U.S teenagers have been steadily increasing. The National Survey on Drug Use and Health, or the NSDUH, records the percentage of adolescents that have experienced a major depressive episode annually. For the survey, a major depressive episode requires that the respondent has had one or more periods of at least 2 weeks in which they felt depressed for the greater part of each day (2020, p. 41). The NSDUH reported that in 2017, about 13% of United States teenagers experienced one or more major depressive episodes during that year, which is an 59% increase from the 8% reported in 2007 (2020, p. 42). During the pandemic, depression rates have increased even further, caused by a variety of factors that the pandemic has created worldwide. Several national youth mental health surveys were not able to put together normal survey reports in 2020. Thus, data cannot be reliably compared directly from 2019 to 2020. Additionally, the NSDUH’s latest data is from 2019. However, Mental Health America, another database that provides data from their own youth mental health survey, has reliable reports for 2019 and 2021. In 2019, an average of 12.63% youth ages 12 to 17 reported having experienced at least one major depressive episode. As reports were recorded state-to-state, the minimum recorded percentage of having at least one major depressive episode was 9.91% and the maximum was 15.93% (Hellebuyck et al., p. 17). In 2021, the average rose to 15.08% (Reinhert et al., 2021, p. 25). This increase from 2019 to 2021 indicates depression rates in adolescents also increased during the height of the pandemic in 2020. This is further supported by the data that Mental Health America did gather in 2020. The survey measured depression rates in a different manner, screening respondents for symptoms of mild to severe depression. In the 11 to 17 category, 9.38% scored with symptoms of minimal to mild depression and an enormous 90.62% scored with symptoms of moderate to severe depression (Mental Health and COVID-19). Although this data is not comparable to other data, it still clearly demonstrates how high adolescent depression rates have risen in the U.S due to the pandemic. More specifically, the various stressors that trigger symptoms of depression in adolescents have been amplified by the pandemic, which is reflected in the data. Things like overwhelming coursework, a bad home environment, or concerning worldwide events–such as the pandemic itself–increase stress and cause feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and helplessness.

Counterargument: The Improvement of Mental Health During a Global Catastrophe

In the face of the growing rates of depression in adolescents during the pandemic, some have reported that the pandemic has served to be a positive circumstance for the betterment or maintained stability of their mental health. As the pandemic caused virtually everything to shut down, schools across the United States shut down and put a halt to the education of millions of adolescents nation-wide. Because of this, youth were able to get a long break from their stressful schooling, allowing them time to recharge and pursue hobbies at home. For example, a high school junior named Ella Fredrikson said that being in quarantine served as a nice break from her bustling life. She finally was able to do the hobbies she missed (Learning Network, 2020). The lack of stressors such as overwhelming schoolwork and extracurriculars caused symptoms of depression in some teenagers to subside, overall improving their mental health. The pandemic has also allowed people, including adolescents, time to work on their mental health. Suggested methods to improve and protect one’s mental health at home include exploring goals and hobbies, keeping a journal, maintaining good hygiene and diet, creating healthy sleeping habits, and meditating (Importance of Mental Health, 2021). These methods become much more possible in a nation where everybody is isolated in their houses. Some individuals who faced difficulties because of the pandemic have been able to successfully employ coping mechanisms and avoid a crumbling mentality. A recent study examining depressive symptoms in adolescents during the pandemic described the term “character strengths”. They are defined as “morally valued positive traits that are reflected in thoughts, emotions, and behaviors” (Liu et al., 2021, para. 1.2). The studies found that these character strengths or psychological resources can be utilized by adolescents to successfully cope with their unfamiliar and concerning reality; they promote positive behavior and mentality (Liu et al., 2021). As one example, a boy named Anthony Naranjo thought positively, demonstrating a character strength of his, to see the good of the pandemic. He was glad that his social circle became narrow; he could spend more time with his family and take the time to discover himself while also working on and strengthening his mental mindset (Learning Network, 2020). Similarly, a girl from California named Mieko also demonstrated positivity and encouraged others to practice it to combat the stressfulness of the pandemic (Learning Network, 2020). Through these psychological resources many adolescents can alleviate the stress derived from the pandemic and therefore reduce depressive symptoms.

The Crippling Effects of the Worldwide Pandemic on Adolescent Psyche

Despite the few youths who felt that the pandemic was good for their mental health, a much greater number found that it had the opposite effect. The pandemic was and still is a dramatic and life altering world event. It has been stressfully unpredictable, caused many deaths, and cast a cloud of fear throughout the world for a long time, causing mental wellness worldwide to deteriorate. Like the data from Mental Health America, another study showed that depressive symptoms increased from before the pandemic to during it, especially in females (Hawes et al., 2021). For adolescents particularly, the transition to remote learning, limited interaction with peers, and confinement to their homes increased stress and had a negative impact on mental health. For instances, a girl named Caileigh Robinson said that she already had depression and that not being able to see people outside her family served to worsen her mental health. She found that she lost motivation and felt fear very frequently (Learning Network, 2021). Caileigh’s depression appeared to have worsened due to the pandemic. Although not appearing to have spiraled into depression, another girl described stressors that have been placed on her because of the pandemic. Elysia said that she felt stressed about missing important milestones in her life, like prom and graduation (Learning Network, 2021). While trying to see the positive, Elysia clearly felt the weight that the pandemic put on her mentality. Brenda Kim shared a more detailed account of how she felt when quarantine began. She felt pessimistic about quarantine, experienced helplessness and loneliness, and lost her educational motivation, deeming it pointless as her life blurred before her (Learning Network, 2021). The words she used demonstrated that she was feeling symptoms of depression and likely even experienced at least one depressive episode due to the pandemic. The New York Times article that collected all these quotes from youths concerning the pandemic also welcomed poems. Ellinor Johansson’s Poem by The Lady Running with Toilet Paper included the phrases, “You make me lose my hope in mankind,” “No one seems to be coughing/But I can feel it in the air/A dull creeping paranoia/Assembling to a scare,” and “All I’m able to think is, ‘Oh god we’re screwed!’” (Learning Network, 2021). Her work showed that she too felt immense pressure and even symptoms of depression. The people who hoarded toilet paper made her lose hope in mankind, she constantly felt that she was in danger of getting infected, and she worried that the world would crumble. Overall, countless adolescents across the United States overwhelmingly suffered mentally because of the pandemic. Such a massive disruption in human life totally upended normalcy and encouraged the festering of feelings of fear, uncertainty, hopelessness, and helplessness.

Academic Performance Decline as a Result of Increasing Depression Rates During the Pandemic

Depression in adolescent students during the pandemic has caused a decline in academic performance. Depression interferes with daily activities and causes those afflicted to ignore their successes, instead focusing on their failures. Because of this, depressed individuals struggle to absorb curriculum and spend minimal time on homework (Khurshid et al., 2015). In fact, academic and social pressures not only are affected by depression but cause adolescent depression as well (Geiger et al., 2019). It becomes a never-ending cycle. Either an individual ignores their academics because they are depressed, or their academics causes stress which leads to depression and still ultimately the negligence of academic work. The pandemic initially caused the closing down of schools and then transitioned to online learning, which served as a huge stressor to teenagers and contributed to many individuals’ depressive symptoms. As a result, electronics have been used excessively, sleep patterns have been disturbed, and stamina has decreased (Haleemunnissa et al, 2021). These habits negatively affected schooling, especially when school became entirely conducted online. Online school was unfamiliar and usually proved to be an ineffective way to teach young middle and high schoolers. For depressed teenagers, interest in school was largely non-existent, so curriculum was ignored, homework wasn’t done, and many grades dropped. As grades dropped, stress and therefore depressive symptoms increased and students across the United States became trapped in the cycle.

In conclusion, the worldwide COVID-19 pandemic has caused an increase in adolescent depression rates, which had already been increasing for the past several years. Although a small percentage of youths felt that the pandemic has allowed them the opportunity to improve their mental health, many more found that their mental health was worsened as a result, oftentimes causing them to develop depressive symptoms and even experience depressive episodes. Finally, depression, being caused by the pandemic and exacerbated by the stressful, unusual, and oftentimes ineffective new methods of teaching, have resulted in a decline in academic performance for the past two years. Knowing these things, it appears necessary for the United States government to provide American adolescents with more resources to improve their mental health. Additionally, it may be beneficial for U.S school systems to provide more resources and assistances for academically struggling students and mentally struggling students.



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The Lion's Pride, Vol. 15 Copyright © 2022 by Elizabeth Ann Carter is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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