“You talk to hospital administrators and the emergency rooms are...

“You talk to hospital administrators and the emergency rooms are packed,”  said Dr. Jeffrey Steigman, a clinical psychologist in Huntington, of young people seeking help for mental health issues.

Credit: Barry Sloan

Depression among adolescents was increasing even before the COVID-19 pandemic, and by 2020 nearly one in five were experiencing major depressive episodes, according to a new study.

The report by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that even though cases of depression among adolescents and young adults have continued to rise, there has not been a commensurate increase in treatment.

“These U.S. national data reveal a clear increase in depression and, critically, in untreated depression,” the report said. “These patterns demand immediate action, especially for adolescents and young adults.”

As for the pandemic's overall affect on the already declining mental health of young Americans, according to the study, it made things worse.

What to know

  • A new study found that depression among adolescents was increasing even before the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • The pandemic exacerbated the already declining state of youth mental health.
  • Long Island mental health experts said the findings mirror what they see among the young people they treat.

Mental health experts on Long Island said the report mirrored what they have seen in Nassau and Suffolk counties: adolescents and teens overcome by dealing with the pressures of growing up, often amplified by social media, in a global pandemic.

The consequences for young people and their families can be dire, said Dr. Jeffrey Steigman, a clinical psychologist who is chief strategy officer for the Huntington-based, Family Service League.

His organization was seeing an increase in young people with depression before the pandemic. It has worsened to the point that hospitals and emergency rooms are now inundated with teenagers or preteens seeking help since they often don’t know where else to turn, according to Steigman.

“You talk to hospital administrators and the emergency rooms are packed,” he said. “They end up going there in numbers we have not seen in years.”

He added that “you have younger and younger kids actually attempting suicide and oftentimes lethal attempts, whether they are successful or not.”

The report found a steady increase in the percentage of young people aged 12 to 17 experiencing major depressive episodes — 12.7% in 2015, 15.8% in 2019 and 16.9% in 2020.

For those aged 18 to 25, it increased from 10.3% to 15.5% to 17.2%. The total for all Americans over age 12 having major depressive episodes in 2020 was 9.2%. The study found no increase in depression among Americans 35 and older from 2015 to 2020.

“Major depression is the most common mental disorder in the U.S. and is the strongest risk factor for suicide behavior,” the report said

A variety of factors are contributing to the declining mental health of young people, Steigman said, including increased pressure to get good grades in school, perform at high levels in sports, and navigate social media, where cyberbullying is common.

“Everything is starting earlier and there is more pressure to perform,” he said. “Kids feel like they have to be perfect.”

The report's findings came as no surprise to Dr. Donna Thiele, a clinical psychologist based in Holbrook. She has seen the increase in young people with depression both in her work in schools and in private practice.

Many come to her thinking they are suffering from anxiety, but upon digging deeper, learn it is depression, she said.

“They come in to see me, perhaps they are worried about their future,” she said. “But then we realize together they’re not really worried about the future, they’re hopeless about it.”

She said the pandemic led to a “turbo charge in those rates” of depressed youth. Activities such as sports, school clubs and scouting, all of which can provide companionship and help build resilience — shut down.

Dr. Debbie Ramirez, a psychologist based in Bayport-Blue Point, said she has seen the crisis in her own community, where two teenage boys died by suicide in the last academic year. An 11-year-old in neighboring Patchogue also died by suicide, as did a 15-year-old from the same community and another in Lake Ronkonkoma, according to school officials, community leaders and advocates.

“Absolutely I have seen our local kids struggling,” she said.

Waiting lists to see therapists were long before the pandemic, and have only gotten worse due to a shortage of counselors, the psychologists said.

“Access to care and treatment is critical,” Steigman said. Many are “not getting treated, and that can result in intractable depressive episodes later in life” as well.

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