A recently published meta-analysis shows rates of anxiety and depression in youth have doubled, compared with pre-pandemic estimates. However, protective factors, prevention methods and early intervention offer effective ways we can support youth mental health.

Emerging research suggests that families who have more daily routines and structure observe fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety among children. That’s because routines help provide predictability and a sense of control, which can calm the mind and ease symptoms. Thus, a practical and tangible approach to help mitigate the adverse effects of COVID-19 on youth is to implement consistent and predictable daily routines in the home and school settings.

Routines, even simple ones, serve as important anchors to maintaining good mental health—and building healthy lifestyle behaviors into those daily routines can offer additional benefits and buffering effects.  What key science-backed health and wellness habits should you consider?

Stay socially connected with friends, loved ones and other supportive individuals. A single supportive relationship or sense of belonging has a powerful impact on a child’s capacity to tolerate stress and is associated with positive mental and physical health outcomes. A 2021 study indicated child-reported sense of connectedness to caregivers was a strong predictor of their pandemic-related depression, anxiety, and happiness. This finding is consistent with a robust body of literature that supports the importance of parental warmth and connection for resiliency and mental health outcomes. 

Prioritize good sleep hygiene.  The relationship between sleep and mental health appears to be bi-directional.  For instance, research has shown that adequate sleep bolsters a positive mood while sleep deprivation is linked to negative moods and challenges with emotional regulation. Prioritizing sleep routines and addressing any sleep issues can help alleviate symptoms of mental health conditions.

Schedule daily exercise.  According to recent studies, engaging in 15 to 30 minutes of vigorous exercise daily can prevent the onset of anxiety and depression or significantly reduce the symptoms for those who suffer from these conditions. Several studies provide clear evidence that physical activity can actually reduce symptoms of mild to moderate depression to the same extent as standard treatments (psychotherapy and antidepressant medication). Therefore, researchers suggest combining physical activity with these treatments to yield even greater outcomes.

Eat a variety of nutrient-rich foods.  What we eat affects the way we feel. The Standard American Diet (SAD) consisting of processed foods, fried foods, refined grains, high sugary foods and beverages lacks many of the key nutrients critical for brain health and the proper functioning of the central nervous system. Micronutrients linked with mental status include the B vitamins (folic acid, vitamin B6, and vitamin B12), vitamin C, vitamin D, vitamin E, zinc, magnesium and omega-3 essential fatty acids (EPA and DHA). The Supporting the Modification of lifestyle in Lowered Emotional States (SMILES) study showed participants who received dietetic counseling to follow a modified Mediterranean diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean protein foods, fatty fish and olive oil had a much greater reduction in anxiety and depression symptoms over a 12-week period compared with the control group.

Manage screen time. Many studies have found an association between time spent in front of a screen and on social media platforms with symptoms of depression and anxiety. From nighttime screen use disrupting sleep and the circadian rhythm to social comparisons leading to poor body image or self-esteem, cyberbullying and exposures to negative information reported by local and national news---the quality and quantity of screen time can be a risk factor for youth.

Practice Relaxation and Stress management techniques. Since stress will always be a part of life, it is important for children to develop healthy coping and self-regulation skills early in life.  Relaxation techniques such as yoga and meditation have been around for thousands of years with proven benefits.  Other ways to help reset the nervous system include deep breathing exercises, blowing bubbles, coloring, journaling, arts and crafts, warm Epsom salt baths, calm music, laughing singing and spending time in nature.

References
Boers, E., et al. (2019). Association of Screen Time and Depression in Adolescence. JAMA pediatrics, 173(9), 853–859. doi.org/10.1001/jamapediatrics.2019.1759
Jacka, F. N., O'Neil, A., Itsiopoulos, C., Opie, R., Cotton, S., Mohebbi, M., Castle, D., Dash, S., Mihalopoulos, C., Chatterton, M. L., Brazionis, L., Dean, O. M., Hodge, A., & Berk, M. (2018). The SMILES trial: an important first step. BMC medicine, 16(1), 237.
Kris-Etherton, P. M., et al. (2020). Nutrition and behavioral health disorders: Depression and anxiety. Nutrition Reviews, 79(3), 247-260. doi:10.1093/nutrit/nuaa025
Mcarthur, B. A., et al. (2021). Child and family factors associated with child mental health and well-being during COVID-19. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. doi:10.1007/s00787-021-01849-9
Racine, N., et al. (2021). Global Prevalence of Depressive and Anxiety Symptoms in Children and Adolescents During COVID-19. JAMA Pediatrics. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2021.2482