(201) Health 2022 Edition | Page 29


COVID has spurred an epidemic of anxiety and depression among New Jersey youth

Like so many children and teenagers , the pandemic wore hard on one Bergen County 16-year-old asthe months passed by and her depression grew .

Over the course of almost two years asCOVID altered so many aspects of life , she spoke less often to her family , until she all but stopped . Her appetite waned even for her favorite foods . She spent most days in her bedroom . Nothing seemed to bring her joy anymore .
“ The isolation between meand her came to the point where wedidn ’ t even understand each other anymore ,” the teen ’ smother says . “ We were on a different page . But Iwanted to help her . That never stopped .”
The teenager ’ s mother is telling her daughter ’ sstory oncondition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of confronting and treating mental health problems . The Bergen teen is one in asea of children and adolescents who are suffering from stress , depression , anxiety and other ailments that have been brought onor exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic in what the American Academy of Pediatrics has called a “ national emergency .”
Hospitals inNew Jersey and elsewhere have seen arise in the number of adolescents and young adults in crisis who are experiencing everything from panic attacks to suspected suicide attempts , especially among teenage girls .
“ We ’ re calling it an epidemic within a pandemic ,” says Dr . Shannon Bennett , director of the Youth Anxiety Center at Weill Cornell Medicine and NewYork-
Presbyterian . “ Depression and anxiety have increased so much so that we ’ re seeing more and more teenagers brought to the emergency room . This is happening at hospitals across the country .”
Mental health is a complex , multi-faceted issue where one size never fits all . What may affect one child can have little bearing on another . But therapists and other clinicians who have treated young people during the pandemic say they have often seen a feeling of hopelessness manifest itself from isolation , familial stress , disruption in activities , fear of getting the virus , and fear of transmitting the virus , as well as from mixed messages , misinformation and arguments on masks , vaccines and other public health measures . Age plays a major role . So , too , does the pandemic ’ s many changes . It slammed into the public consciousness as an out-ofcontrol disease that killed thousands of New Jerseyans each week . It has since taken unexpected turns where hopes of normalization have been dashed by highly-contagious variants . Health experts believe it has now settled in as adisease the world will have to live with and manage .
That stress has weighed on all age groups , and has shifted over time . Mental health services in New Jersey have been stretched thin since the first few months of the pandemic . Demand is at an all-time high . Caseloads have piled up , causing waitlists to stretch for months . Services for children and adolescents are in as much demand as for adults , if not more , clinicians say . The Renfrew Center , a chain of eating disorder clinics , has seen
a 166 % increase in call volume from 13- to 19-year-olds alone .
Bergen New Bridge Medical Center in Paramus — long one of the largest providers of psychiatric care in North Jersey — is planning to build a new emergency department next year that will have 13 more beds for mental health services , including aspecial pod for the young . Demand has often become so great that New Bridge also launched an eight- to 10-week , in-patient therapy program for adolescents late last year .
The pandemic ’ s first wave in March and April of 2020 introduced the stress of the unknown — a killer virus run amok that was shutting the world down — and no one quite had ahandle on it . Asurvey of 4,700 college students in New Jersey and New York by researchers at Montclair State University found that most had sleep problems and felt a sense of hopelessness and uncontrollable worry during those first months .
For younger children , COVID has been the first realization that the world can be very dangerous . “ What is this invincible thing we ’ re up against and what is it going to do to me and my family ?” says Dr . Joe Galasso , founder of Baker Street Behavioral Health clinics , based in Hasbrouck Heights . “ It was a very serious question . Are all of us going to make it through this ?”
Parents and therapists will often say that kids are resilient . The familiar refrain has been even more familiar throughout
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( 201 ) HEALTH 2022 EDITION 25