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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


How pandemic has hurt mental health among Wisconsin youth

UW Health officials release troubling reports of increased suicidal thoughts, attempts among children under 14
Celia Hiorns

CONTENT WARNING: Discussion of suicide and/or self harm. If you have are experiencing thoughts of suicide or self harm, dial 988 to reach the Suicide & Crisis Lifeline. View options for mental health services on campus through University Health Services.

UW Health officials recently expressed a concerning rise in the number of adolescents being admitted to the emergency room for suicide-related issues. These upticks include both suicidal thoughts and attempts among youth.

In fact, the highest increase in psychiatric visits from 2018 to 2022 was seen in children under the age of 14. More importantly, UW Health reported that there has been a “significant jump” in these emergency cases since 2020, coinciding with the beginning of the ongoing pandemic.


Accompanying this increase in suicide-related emergency room visits is a similar rise in depression and anxiety among teens and adolescents, not just in the Madison area, but in other parts of the nation as well. According to the CDC, suicide is the second leading cause of death for children ages 10 to 14 years old.

“Other long-standing impacts on youth mental health like loneliness and hopelessness also play big roles in risk for suicide,” Shanda Wells, a pediatric behavioral health specialist at UW Health, said.

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It goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic altered the lives of millions, particularly those of young people during their critical phases of development. Quarantines, lockdowns and social distancing hindered their ability to socialize with peers, participate in activities and build relationships — all of which comprise significant elements of mental health.

While it is fair to consider that teens and children might still be feeling the effects of this period of isolation, to say that the pandemic is the sole factor contributing to the rise in adolescent depression and anxiety would be oversimplifying the issue.

But, it is important to acknowledge the ways in which COVID-19 did have a devastating effect on adolescent mental health. A recently published review of survey studies exploring the effects of the pandemic on adolescent mental health found that anxiety, depression, loneliness, stress and tension were the most observed and reported symptoms among children amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The study also identified other mental health issues among children who were exposed to the pandemic, including sleep problems, panic and suicidal behavior. Children with psychiatric or developmental disorders were found to be particularly vulnerable to the mental health effects of the pandemic.

While it may seem like the pandemic is over, it would be ignorant to assume that the pandemic’s detrimental impacts on adolescent mental health are not still being felt. A study of children’s perspectives on friendship and socialization during COVID-19 concluded that their social interactions and companionships have been significantly disrupted by the pandemic.

Online communication methods used during the pandemic to keep children in touch with peers may not have been the solution they were thought to be. The children interviewed for the study reported that virtual interactions could not measure up to the need for face-to-face socialization.

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Based on this study, it is safe to assume that children are likely still struggling to socialize and make friends after spending so much time in isolation, separated from their peers. In fact, this very concern was raised and addressed by adolescent health experts in a blog for Children’s Minnesota. The pandemic’s contribution to adolescent depression and anxiety could serve as one explanation for UW Health’s rather recent spike in pediatric suicide-related emergency visits.

This said, there are other factors that have contributed to the widespread increase in teens and adolescents struggling with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts.

According to the Pew Research Center, academic and social pressures are two factors that have been cited by experts on adolescent depression. In a Pew Research survey asking about certain pressures that teens face, every six out of 10 reported that they felt “a lot of pressure to get good grades.”

Other studies point to smartphone and social media use as a factor in the rise of self-injurious behavior among adolescents. Other things such as dating violence, bullying and other forms of abuse are known to contribute to increasing rates of teen depression and suicide.

Regardless of what is causing the increase in suicidal thoughts and actions among children, there is no question that this harrowing problem, both here in Madison and across the country, is in need of more research and meaningful action.

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Suicide prevention, while a challenging topic to discuss with children so young, must be more widely implemented in public schools. In fact, these kinds of classroom educational programs have been shown to reduce suicide rates, attempts and tendencies.

While many schools and institutions have worked tirelessly to implement more mental health resources for adolescents who may already be struggling with thoughts of suicide or self-harm, there doesn’t seem to be enough preventative steps taken to thwart feelings of loneliness, hopelessness and worthlessness in youth from the start.

More preventative actions in this regard, such as fostering strong peer relationships, teaching emotional coping skills from a young age, and identifying risk factors early on have been found to be effective strategies for preventing depression in youth. This could then help to solve the concerning issue of adolescent suicidal behavior.

Hallie Clafin ([email protected]) is a junior studying journalism & mass communication and political science.

Resources regarding suicide prevention and mental health:

  • Trevor Lifeline: crisis intervention and suicide prevention services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning (LGBTQ) young people under 25
  • 24/7 crisis support 608-265-5600 (option 9)
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