Episode 85: Teens and Mental Health in the (Post)Pandemic

Jen: Hi! It’s Jen Richler. Welcome back to Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive, where gender, history, and Jewish culture meet.

Lily: My name is Lily. I'm from Needham, Massachusetts, and I'm almost 16 years old.

The pandemic started in March of my seventh-grade year. I remember, like, just being in my room at my desk for hours and hours on end. And it was just so exhausting to be on Zoom for that long. And then even when we were in school, desks were six feet apart. You couldn't talk at lunch. Like, we didn't have extracurriculars. It gave me just a lot of time to think that I wasn't used to, and it became really easy to just become obsessive with things that are normal for teenage girls to think about, like their body image or their identity.

Liv: I'm Liv. I'm from Pittsburgh, and I'm 17 now.

When the pandemic hit, um, I was just about to finish out my freshman year of high school. Some of the members of my family are immunocompromised, so I had to stay isolated for a longer period when a lot of my classmates were going back.

I couldn't function, I couldn't get my schoolwork done, and my mental health just took an absolute dive. Um, I started getting, like, D’s and F’s, where that definitely wasn't a normal thing for me.

Ma'ayan: My name is Ma’ayan. I'm from Newton, Massachusetts, and I just turned 16.

At the time I was 13. You know, I was just learning how to have my own social life, how to make my own plans and, like, who I was, sort of, in a social setting, separate from my family. And not being able to do that, I definitely think has stunted both my social development and the social development of my peers. And I definitely notice a lot more social anxiety.

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Jen: There’s been a lot of talk lately about how the pandemic has harmed teen mental health. The headlines are alarming—many use the word “crisis.” And apparently, they’re not exaggerating—that’s exactly the word the Surgeon General used in December 2021 to describe the situation.

Of course, these problems didn’t start with the pandemic. In fact, in the 10 to 15 years before COVID, around 1 in 5 kids and teens in the US had a mental health disorder. And things were only getting worse. From 2009 to 2019, the share of high school students who said they consistently felt sad or hopeless increased by 40% to 1 in 3. Suicidal behaviors also increased among high school students in the decade before COVID.

But the pandemic exacerbated these problems. Rates of depression, anxiety, and trauma soared among teens. So did ER visits for mental health emergencies. More than 140,000 kids in the US lost a caregiver to COVID and suddenly had to deal with grief on top of everything else.

The teens who were most affected by the pandemic were the most vulnerable to begin with: racial and ethnic minorities, kids from low-income families, LGBTQ+ kids, and those with disabilities. But every teen was affected by the social isolation and total disruption to daily life the pandemic brought with it.

And as if the pandemic weren’t enough to weather, the last two years have been fraught with other crises: a reckoning with racial injustice and the dangers of climate change, the erosion of reproductive rights, ever-present gun violence, and threats to democracy. It's a lot for anyone to handle, let alone someone riding the rollercoaster of adolescence.

That’s why we started this episode with the voices of teens. There’s a lot of talk about teens, but we don’t always hear directly from them. JWA works closely with teens through our Rising Voices Fellowship; Liv, who you heard at the start of the episode, is one of this year’s fellows. We learn so much from them about what’s broken in the world and how to fix it.

We also wanted to talk to someone who spends a lot of time thinking about teens’ well-being. So we called on Vanessa Kroll Bennett, a JWA board member. She’s the co-host of the Puberty Podcast, which covers everything from reproductive organs to porn to masturbation. She writes about what she calls “the beautiful mess of raising tweens and teens” at sites like Scary Mommy and Grown and Flown. And she’s the parent to 4 kids between the ages of 11 and 19.

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In this episode of Can We Talk?, Judith Rosenbaum speaks with Vanessa about teens and mental health before, during, and after the pandemic, gender differences, and what caregivers and Jewish communities can do to help.

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Judith: So, I guess the place to start is, what was going on for teens, in terms of mental health, before the pandemic, because I know some of this wasn't entirely new. And how has the pandemic exacerbated it?

Vanessa: So, before the pandemic, there was an exponential rise in anxiety and depression amongst teens. And not surprisingly, that spike coincided with the use of social media, in particular platforms like Instagram.

Um, experts are mixed on how much they want to attribute these issues to social media. But we do know from studies that were done both in the US and the UK of, like, more than 10,000 kids, that kids who spend three or more hours a day are at highest risk for, um, higher rates of anxiety, depression, lower self-esteem, body image, less involvement in extracurricular activities. And then there was the whole Instagram/ Facebook fiasco that they had internal data about the harm that those platforms were doing, particularly for teenage girls, data that they hid as they continued to encourage them to join the platforms.

So, pre-pandemic, we already knew there was the issue. In pandemic, some other things that we saw were an exponential raise in rates of 10- to 13-year-olds going to the emergency room with suicidal ideation or suicidal attempts. So that is much younger concerns about suicidality. There's also much higher rates of eating disorders amongst kids of all genders.

And that was true pre-pandemic, but also continuing to be an issue in pandemic and beyond. So, it's like, it's scary and it's really upsetting for adults to think about and hear about what is happening, because we're kind of like, I'm trying to do everything right, but somehow they're still really, really struggling.

Judith: I think some of the social media questions are also really interesting, because I know that, on the one hand, some of the ways that kids were able to connect via smartphones and social media were important at certain times during the pandemic, when they were cut off from all other peer relationships. But at the same time, we see the ways in which they're dangerous.

Vanessa: Yeah. I mean, listen, social media was and continues to be a really powerful way for kids to be in connection with each other. You know, their romantic lives happen over texts, Snapchat, DM; their lifelong friendships happen that way. For two years, their academic life happened that way. For those of us raising tweens and teens, a lot of our connection throughout the day with our kids happens through technology. Like, this is not at all to demonize it.

But I do think that it is not a coincidence that the rising rates of anxiety and depression, even before the pandemic, were tied chronologically to the rise of Instagram and other social media platforms.

Judith: One of the things I want to talk about is, we know that the increase in depression and anxiety has been significantly worse for teen girls than for boys. So, why is that? What is particular about the conditions of the last few years that may have exacerbated depression and anxiety among girls?

Vanessa: So, it's not entirely clear to me that the gender divide is as big as it seems. Boys are trained to be silent, to be stoic, not to express their emotions, not to ask for help. And then their experiences in puberty and adolescence, the testosterone, only serves to reinforce that. Everyone has some testosterone, but when it is the predominant sex hormone in puberty, it presents as silence, as anger, as aggression.

Whereas with people whose predominant sex hormone is estrogen, that presents as, you know, laughter, tears, um, and also a willingness to share and talk about things. Because hormones don't just circulate below the neck, as we say on our podcast all the time. They also circulate in the brain, and there's essentially a hormone stew that the brain is sitting in. And as the hormones rise and fall, it affects the brain chemistry and it affects behavior and decision making and mood and all of those things.

So, I push back on some of the data that says it's much, much worse for girls than boys because I do think it's part of like, well, what can you get out of them? How are you determining what the experience is ,because we also know that suicide rates are higher for teenage boys than teenage girls.

Having said that, there was a study that came out of the UK in the last few months and it pinpointed that adolescent girls between the ages of 11 and 13 are one of the most vulnerable populations to the negative impacts of social media on their mental health. So, while I think the data is not as lopsided about the difference between male and female anxiety and depression in adolescents, I do think that there's certain things that affect some populations more than others.

There've been horrifying stories about adolescent girls struggling, secretly oftentimes, with mental health issues, um, where kids can go down rabbit holes. So, for instance, a suicidal adolescent or an adolescent having suicidal ideation can go down a rabbit hole on TikTok or Reddit where they're just fed more and more data—”data,” I mean, in air quotes, more and more, um, resources on, you know, suicide or anorexia or cutting or purging.

Judith: And then there's also the fact that the world is a dumpster fire, and just reading anything online about the state of the world can send you into a kind of anxiety spiral. And, I think one of the questions that I have about, you know, how we think about and navigate this rise in anxiety is, how do we parse out and manage what is a completely rational, anxious response to the world that we're living in, and what is a you know, a medical crisis?

Vanessa: Yeah. I mean, so mental health professionals are very eager for people to understand the distinction between anxiety and an anxiety disorder. So, anxiety is a normal, natural human response to surrounding situations where we feel under threat or unsafe or concerned. It can be a positive; it can energize us. We can feel stronger, faster, smarter… whatever, in response to anxiety that's triggering us to react to something.

An anxiety disorder is a diagnosed disorder in which the anxiety gets in the way of that, sort of, normal functioning of daily life and prevents a person from being able to go to school, go to work—you know, whatever daily life looks like.

One of the things that we're seeing a lot in the adolescents that we hear from and talk to and work with is that there's, like, this culture of self-pathologizing. Um, so kids, because this is very much in the news, that there are real mental health concerns about this generation, but also, it's, like, kind of in vogue to be like, “Oh my God, I'm having a panic attack” or like, “Oh yeah, they couldn't come because they totally have an anxiety disorder.” Like, kids are pathologizing actually normal adolescent and human behaviors. You know, feeling anxious is very different than having an anxiety disorder.

But what professionals will say is one of the ways to address anxiety or feeling anxious is not to avoid. So, when we think about how we care for kids and how we guide kids and educate kids who are feeling worried and anxious and nervous about the state of the world, I mean, we have to talk to them about it. Like, we can't let them sit and stew in it, silently, in their rooms, and we also can't lecture them about it. We have to ask them and hear from them what they think.

Jen: Here’s what Ma’ayan thinks.

Ma’ayan: It's hard to feel like you're already balancing all of the struggles of being a teenager and also sort of watching the world fall apart. The overturning of Roe v. Wade is something that definitely weighed heavily on my mind and was a real source of anxiety for me and for other girls in my community.

Judith: We're thinking a lot about what the Jewish community's responsibility is to addressing this mental health crisis, and what could Jewish communities be doing to address this issue better?

Vanessa: I think there are ways for the Jewish community and other religious communities to become conveners for kids. But what that might mean is reimagining what convening kids might look and feel like. It may be that, on some level, Hebrew school has to look different because the kids are, you know, tired and they just wanna, like, have fun with other kids. And so maybe their curriculum changes or maybe the kinds of events they do change a little bit.

I think in terms of older adolescents, we know that when people are struggling with anxiety, that actually caring for others, it actually helps your own anxiety. And so, if we know that adolescents are struggling with anxiety disorders and other mental health issues, giving them opportunities to connect to other human beings and to help them and to support them and to give back is actually a really wonderful way for them to help themselves also.

So, things like volunteering, working with younger kids in the Hebrew school or in the synagogue community. Like, ways for them to connect to other human beings that help them feel useful is a really great way for the Jewish community to be able to help these kids. Kids who are feeling like the world is kind of out of control, having the ability to kind of organize and make change and take action, I think, is super empowering.

Judith: Yeah, we've definitely seen that with our Rising Voices fellows our teen fellows who, you know, are doing amazing things in their community and it's clearly been empowering for them, even when they were trapped at home, that they could emerge from their Zoom box in various ways and, you know, address the issues that they see in their community and feel like there's a kind of agency there, and an experience of being part of making the world better, which at a time when the world seems dark, is the best thing you can feel.

Is there anything specific as far as you see in your work about how Jewish teens may be experiencing this moment?

Vanessa: I think what's going on right now in terms of rising antisemitism and the feelings about Kanye and, kind of, other antisemitic acts I think, can feel either frightening or it can feel like something they just want to ignore and put to the side.

So, I think having mechanisms for kids to explore and talk about it in a way where they don't feel talked down to or judged by adults who maybe don't appreciate the, sort of, cultural import for them of one of their heroes, um, becoming just like a shockingly antisemitic person.

Judith: And I think it's a really good reminder for the Jewish community, where there is a lot of conversation about antisemitism, but it's often at a very much a kind of policy level or kind of galvanizing the Jewish community to be more identified or to take a certain stand, right? It's not necessarily the conversation that you're talking about, which is really just about how are you experiencing this in terms of your own life, your own community, your own heroes, your own engagement with popular culture?

Vanessa: Yeah. I mean, I think if we want our kids to be thoughtful, engaged people in the world, we have to give them opportunities to practice analysis and thought and reflection and discussion and debate. And these are great times to do that.

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Vanessa: I think we feel worried for our kids. I think we feel sad for our kids. I think we think about their future and we think about the future of the planet and the future of democracy.

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But, like, we kind of have to let them react to their lives and their situations in a way that's authentic to them without putting our own filters on them, putting our own baggage on them. They're still kids and they're still teenagers and they're still finding joy and meaning and excitement in their world…

Jen: And you can hear that joy in the teens’ voices. We’ll let them  have the last word.

Ma’ayan: One silver lining of such a long period of isolation and anxiety surrounding social activity is that I have really been able to more deeply and thoroughly enjoy people and friends and community, and I'm so lucky to feel like I have found my tribe and can, you know, unabashedly just love my friends and my people.

Liv: I definitely feel, like, in control more often than not now, which is very comforting coming out of the pandemic when, like, none of us could control anything that was happening. And now, I can see the finish line. I've been accepted into a couple of colleges, um, and I have things to look forward to. And I get to, um yeah, just see people every day. (laughs) It's definitely good.

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Jen: For more of Vanessa’s thoughts on parenting teens, follow her on Instagram @vanessakrollbennett. You can also hear her and Dr. Cara Natterson talk about raising kids through puberty on the Puberty Podcast and follow them on Instagram @thepubertypodcast and on TikTok @spillingthepubertea—that’s “tea” as in T-E-A.

Thank you for joining us for Can We Talk?, the podcast of the Jewish Women’s Archive.

Special thanks to Lily Katz, Liv Gnad, and Ma’ayan Rosenbaum for sharing their thoughts.

Our team includes Judith Rosenbaum and Nahanni Rous. Thanks to Jenny Sartori for help with this episode. Our theme music is by Girls in Trouble. You also heard November Mist by Blue Dot Sessions.

You can find Can We Talk? at jwa.org/canwetalk or wherever you get your podcasts.

I’m Jen Richler…Until next time!

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Jewish Women's Archive. "Episode 85: Teens and Mental Health in the (Post)Pandemic." (Viewed on May 18, 2024) <http://jwa.org/episode-85-teens-and-mental-health-postpandemic>.