New research looks at life satisfaction in pandemic-era teens with mental health histories
New research from the NIH's Environmental influences on Child Health Outcomes (ECHO) Program suggests that during the COVID-19 pandemic, some teens with a history of depression, anxiety, autism and ADHD experienced more severe impacts than those without.
This research, titled "Life Satisfaction for Adolescents with Developmental and Behavioral Disabilities during the COVID-19 Pandemic," is published in Pediatric Research.
Although researchers have looked at how the COVID-19 pandemic affected the mental health of children of all ages, few studies have examined the pandemic's impact on children and teens with pre-existing mental, emotional, behavioral, and developmental (MEBD) disabilities like depression, anxiety, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).
Health policies that were put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 caused disruption of normal activities for children and families. Schools paused in-person learning, extracurricular activities were cancelled, and stay-at-home orders meant children spent more time quarantined with family members instead of engaging with friends and peers.
This study was needed to understand how the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic impacted life satisfaction for adolescents with disabilities, as adolescence is a critical period of social development. Researchers aimed to learn which groups of adolescents were most affected by the pandemic, so that mental health practitioners, pediatricians, and family physicians might be better informed of potential intervention and prevention practices that could be implemented to help particularly vulnerable adolescents through difficult times in the future.
When exposed to certain stresses during the COVID-19 pandemic, adolescents with a history of depression, anxiety, ASD, or ADHD had lower life satisfaction than did their peers. These stresses included decreased social connectedness, decreased family engagement, stress related to medical care access, pandemic-related traumatic stress, and living in a single-caregiver household.
This study also found that 80% of adolescents, regardless of pre-existing conditions, reported decreases in social connectedness during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the detrimental effect of decreased social connectedness was amplified among individuals with certain pre-existing MEBD conditions, this risk factor was widespread among the majority of adolescents.
This study found that adolescents with decreased social connectedness typically had lower life satisfaction across several groups with different life circumstances. However, decreased social connectedness was more harmful for individuals with disabilities. This study allowed researchers to identify the groups of adolescents with disabilities who are most vulnerable and may need additional support during future emergencies. Findings from this study also highlight the importance of interventions aimed specifically at increasing social connectedness, family engagement, and access to medical support for all adolescents, and especially for those with disabilities.
This study included COVID-19 survey data collected from April 2020 to August 2021 from a sample of 1,084 adolescents ages 11–21 years old, and their caregivers. The sample included individuals with and without disabilities from seven ECHO observational research sites in the U.S.
In addition to using pre-existing ECHO Cohort data about adolescents and their families, researchers administered a COVID-19-specfic survey to better understand the physical, mental, and social impact of the pandemic on young people and their families. Data were analyzed using a machine-learning process.
Findings from this study showed evidence of potential differences between adolescents with disabilities and their peers in terms of life satisfaction. Future research is needed to design studies that focus on the vulnerable subgroups identified in this study. Additionally, future studies may look into the long-term effects of decreased social connections and other risks resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic during developmentally critical time periods.
More information: Phillip Sherlock et al, Life satisfaction for adolescents with developmental and behavioral disabilities during the COVID-19 pandemic, Pediatric Research (2023). DOI: 10.1038/s41390-023-02852-3