Teen mental health was in crisis before COVID-19. Persistent feelings of hopelessness and sadness almost doubled over a 10-year period ending in 2019, according to a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Also during this time, attempted suicide and thoughts about suicide skyrocketed among U.S. high school students.
And then came 2020.
“The urgency regarding adolescent mental health has increased significantly during the pandemic,” said Katie Plax, MD, director of the Division of Adolescent Medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “Our kids are not OK. We’re seeing it across the country in our emergency rooms and in our pediatric practices. Many parents and teachers have said they’re seeing it.”
The CDC saw it, too, in a 2022 data analysis of adolescent mental health during the pandemic.
“We can’t just keep on doing the same things,” said Plax, the university’s Ferring Family Professor of Pediatrics and founder of The SPOT (Supporting Positive Opportunities with Youth), a drop-in health and social services clinic for teens and young adults. “We need to do more.”
To that end, Plax has helped lead several studies on depression and pediatric primary care as co-director of the Washington University Pediatric and Adolescent Ambulatory Research Consortium, a network of more than 60 pediatric practices serving demographically diverse patients in the greater St. Louis area. The aim is to help health-care providers develop standardized processes in their practices to diagnose and manage mental health disorders.