COVID-19 pandemic has had significant impact on the mental health of adolescents, new research finds

While substance use declined, social isolation has especially affected the mental health of girls


A study of over 59,000 Icelandic adolescents by a team of Icelandic and North American behavioral and social scientists has found that COVID-19 has had a significant, detrimental impact on adolescent mental health, especially in girls.

The study is the first to investigate and document age- and gender-specific changes in adolescent mental health problems and substance use during the COVID-19 pandemic, while accounting for upward trends that were appearing before the pandemic.

Andleg líðan ungmenna hefur versnað í COVIDThe study found that negative mental health outcomes were disproportionately reported by girls and older adolescents (13-18-year-olds), compared to same-age peers prior to the pandemic. At the same time, it revealed a decline in cigarette smoking, e-cigarette usage and alcohol intoxication among 15-18-year-old adolescents during the pandemic.

Ingibjorg Eva Thorisdottir, chief data analyst at the Icelandic Centre for Social Research and Analysis (ICSRA) at Reykjavik University, was the principal investigator and lead author of the report.

Thorhildur Halldorsdottir, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor of psychology at Reykjavik University who is the study co-principal investigator, said the study represents a “landmark contribution to what we now know about just how psychologically devastating being socially isolated from peers and friends during the ongoing pandemic has been for young people.”

Inga Dora Sigfusdottir, professor of sociology at Reykjavik University, scientific director of the Icelandic Centre for Social Research and Analysis, and research professor of health education at Teachers College, said the study “differs in methodology from previous studies in that it tracked population-based prevalence of mental health outcomes and substance use over several years in order to better understand the potential effects of COVID-19 from recent upward trends in adolescent mental health problems.

According to the researchers, prior studies have not been designed to determine whether clinically relevant levels of depression—as opposed to self-reported depressive symptoms—and substance use have increased during the pandemic.

Previous studies of adolescents during COVID-19 found evidence of increased mental health problems and certain types of substance use that had been rising before the pandemic. This study, however, compares current data with several pre-pandemic time points, which enabled the researchers to separate the effect of COVID-19 from other recent, downward trends in adolescent mental health.

Alfgeir L. Kristjansson, Senior Scientist at ICSRA and Associate Professor of Public Health at West Virginia University and a co-author of the study, said the “results underline the significance of social relationships in the health and well-being of youth and the importance of nurturing and maintaining strong social support mechanisms in their lives. The Lancet Psychiatry study report highlights these findings at population scale.”

In a commentary that accompanies the article’s publication, Gertrud Sofie Hafstad and Else-Marie Augusti, both senior researchers at the Norwegian Centre for Violence and Traumatic Stress Studies in Oslo, write that the study “clearly shows that gauging the mental health status of adolescents over time is of imminent importance.”

Additional investigators and coauthors on the study, which was funded by the Icelandic Research Fund, include Bryndis Bjork Asgeirsdottir, professor of psychology at Reykjavik University; Heiddis Bjork Valdimarsdottir, professor of psychology at Reykjavik University and the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai; and Erla Maria Jonsdottir Tolgyes, chief project officer, and Jon Sigfusson, managing director, both at the Icelandic Center for Social Research and Analysis.