- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Mental health issues among teenagers, including incidences of self-harm and overdosing, have skyrocketed during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new study of medical reports and insurance claims.

Claims for intentional self-harm among 13- to 18-year-olds increased almost 91% in March 2020 compared to March 2019, according to the report by FAIR Health, an independent nonprofit that collects and manages health insurance claim data.

The report released Tuesday also found that claims for overdoses for 13- to 18-year-olds jumped almost 95% last March and 119% in April 2020 compared to the same months in 2019.

Researchers analyzed FAIR Health data from more than 32 billion private health care claim records, tracked monthly changes from January to November 2020 and compared them to the same months in 2019. Mental health claims for 13- to 18-year-olds nearly doubled last March and April. A similar trend was observed for 19- to 22-year-olds, although to a lesser degree than the younger group.

“Young people have proven especially vulnerable to mental health issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the researchers wrote. “School closures, having to learn remotely and isolating from friends due to social distancing have been sources of stress and loneliness. A review of the international literature identified high rates of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic symptoms among children during the pandemic.”

Females made up the bulk (66%) of total mental health claims in January and February 2020 before the pandemic began, the study says. When the pandemic began in March, the percentage of females submitting mental health claims climbed, reaching 71% in November.

Additionally, 13- to 18-year-old girls were up to five times more likely to be treated for intentional self-harm than males. In August, females made up 84% of self-harm cases at the height of the disparity, the researchers note.

“To me, the findings are not surprising because it’s exactly what we are seeing as child and adolescent psychiatrists in our work since the pandemic,” said Dr. Gabrielle Shapiro, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai who was not involved in the study. “The tension and the stress of being in the same place all the time for adolescents and children is really difficult. They usually have physical outlets for their hormonal surges and their energy.

“It’s very stressful. And not being able to see peers was very, very upsetting to the social and emotional development of late teens and adolescent aged kids. So what do you do with all that energy, and what do you do with the sadness and anxiety? So I think that’s why we are seeing an increase in all of these numbers,” Dr. Shapiro said.

The study noted geographic differences in mental health trends among teenagers.

The Northeast recorded the highest jump in intentional self-harm claims among this age group, a nearly 334% climb in August compared to the same month in 2019. There were also increases in April and November for the region.

The West had its highest increase in June at 172.32%, while the South had its highest in April and May, more than 160%. The Midwest had its highest increase in March at nearly 162% and another relatively high climb in August at 101%.

April was a peak for overdose claims, which continued to be above 2019 levels through November. Substance use disorder claims also increased by more than 60% in March and April 2020, lower than the jumps in overdoses. In the months following, claims for substance use disorder fell, dipping below 2019 levels from September to November.

The FAIR Health study also found that generalized anxiety disorder increased almost 94% over April 2019. Major depressive disorder climbed about 84% and adjustment disorders almost 90%.

While the number of emergency room visits for physical conditions such as broken bones and respiratory issues declined, the researchers say the number of people admitted for mental health reasons increased, reaching a peak of nearly 23% in September.

Other diagnoses in the top 10 mental health conditions shifted positions during the pandemic. Eating disorders moved up to No. 5 from No. 6 in August 2020 and remained there through November. Post-traumatic stress disorder moved up, from No. 8 to No. 7 from March through July and again in November.

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