During the 2020 lockdowns and prolonged school closures, it was (or at least should have been) no surprise that mental health, particularly for young people, deteriorated. Data quickly emerged from the CDC suggesting that one-quarter of young adults considered suicide in the summer of 2020. Fall data confirmed that children were suffering from high rates of depression brought on by social isolation, and adolescent suicides were increasing in some areas of the US.
In 2021, things should have improved. Lockdowns eased, schools reopened, and vaccines became widely available. Yet, mounting evidence suggests that 2021 was perhaps even worse than 2020 for youth mental health.
A new analysis for the BBC conducted by the Royal College of Psychiatrists reveals that between April and October 2021, more than 400,000 English children under 18 were referred to the government health service for mental health issues such as self-harm and suicidal ideation. This was a 77 percent increase from the same period in 2019. By the end of October 2021, England recorded its highest number ever of children and adolescents under the care of psychiatric specialists. Beyond these external psychiatric referrals, schools were also reporting increasing rates of children and teen mental health problems that were being addressed at the school level.
The impact of social isolation and upheaval brought about by the government’s response to the coronavirus seems the likely culprit for the current youth mental health crisis. The BBC report points to heightened anxiety of children and teenagers as they emerged from social separation, while others felt increasingly self-conscious. “It was very uncomfortable for the first two or three months. Some of us had put on weight and it felt awkward," one secondary school student told the BBC. "The time I lost with my friends didn't help and it took me a long, long road to get back,” the student added.
The 2021 BBC analysis reflects similar data here in the US. A report by the CDC found that between February and March of 2021, emergency room visits for suspected suicidal attempts among 12-17 year olds rose significantly compared to the same period of time in 2019. For adolescent boys, the increase was 3.7 percent. For adolescent girls, it was a whopping 50.6 percent increase.
Last week, biologist Heather Heying published an article on her popular Natural Selections Substack blog written by a grieving Canadian mother who tragically lost her teenage daughter to suicide last spring. The academic and social disruptions brought about by COVID policy, followed by national vaccine mandates, led her previously happy, accomplished, and well-adjusted daughter, Mila, to sink into hopelessness.
“Everyone is saying how we’ll never have the ‘old normal’ again – that we’ll have a ‘new normal,’ Mila wrote in her journal in March 2021. “But to be frank, I don’t want any part of what is going on in our world to be normal, because this isn’t normal. Humans are social animals and we need that social aspect in our lives to be happy. I hope that our world will be back to the ‘old normal’ as soon as possible, because no matter how long things are like this; whether it be two years or eight, I will never view this as normal,” she wrote. Two months later, just shy of her high school graduation, Mila took her own life.
Her mother and father, an emergency room doctor, have been distributing letters telling of Mila’s heartbreaking story to the Canadian truckers who are pushing back against vaccine mandates and related COVID policies. “This is not just about our child, it is about Canada's children,” says the letter. “Thank you for what you are doing. It matters.”
I warned back in September 2020 that social isolation was damaging an entire generation of kids, and urged parents to take the necessary steps to make sure their children and teens were connecting with their peers and enjoying a normal, healthy social life, despite government policies and proclamations discouraging such interactions. Many parents have done this, but extended COVID policies layered with mandates have taken a widespread toll on youth mental health despite parents’ best efforts.
“'Emergencies' have always been the pretext on which the safeguards of individual liberty have been eroded,” wrote Nobel prize-winning economist F.A. Hayek in 1979, “and once they are suspended it is not difficult for anyone who has assumed such emergency powers to see to it that the emergency will persist.”
For the sake of the children, the emergency must end, mandates must go away, the “old normal” must re-emerge, and individual liberty must prevail.