Helping Teens Navigate the "New Normal"

Nov 22, 2021 9:00 AM ET
Joan Steinberg, Morgan Stanley

By Joan Steinberg

The teenage years mark a period of social and emotional growth that can be difficult to navigate even in the best of times. The COVID-19 pandemic has presented unique and critical challenges for young people and their families. While there is a collective desire to “reemerge” into a more normal routine this fall, we need to acknowledge and address the numerous consequences of the pandemic that still affect many young people as they head back to school and social activities: academic loss, feelings of anxiety or depression, race-related trauma, economic hardship, and grief over the loss of loved ones.

The Morgan Stanley Alliance for Children’s Mental Health—a collaboration between Morgan Stanley, its Foundation, and expert nonprofit members, including the Child Mind Institute, The Jed Foundation, the Steve Fund, NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital, and the Columbia University Department of Psychiatry—is addressing this need through a newly launched Reemergence Program that will study the issue and deliver resources to educators and parents.

How is the Alliance meeting the reemergence challenge?

In order to adequately understand the true scope of reemergence issues and identify key challenges facing youth impacted by them, the Alliance fielded two surveys—one of teens regarding their mental health, the findings of which are discussed below, and another of educators regarding their level of preparedness to address mental health issues in the classroom, which can be found here. The results of these surveys have laid the groundwork for tip sheets developed by our Alliance partners that are available now to parents and educators. As our understanding of reemergence problems evolves and we continue to assess the need for support, the Alliance will publish comprehensive guides for families and educators on how to support teens as they return to school; hold a convening to incubate solutions to ongoing mental health issue;, and encourage multidisciplinary collaboration between educators and experts in mental health, learning and development, and diversity and inclusion.

What are the key hurdles facing teens this fall?

The broad disruptions of the past 18 months mean that teens may face an array of issues related to mental health, including:

  • Feelings of anxiety and depression
  • Academic loss or stress
  • Grief
  • Race and identity-related trauma

The survey, which was conducted by YouGov, an online market research firm, polled a nationally representative group of 516 teens ages 15-19 and brings into focus these challenges. Among its more significant findings:

  • Nearly half (48%) of teens surveyed are concerned and anxious about transitioning to normal life.
  • 47% of teens surveyed expressed concern about falling behind in school.
  • 43% report they are concerned about mental health challenges as a result of the pandemic.

The survey also exposes clear racial and income disparities in both the impact of the pandemic and access to mental health resources. Across the board, non-white teens expressed more concern than white teens about dealing with social anxiety, lost academic focus, mental health challenges and COVID-19 health concerns.

There is a silver lining, however: 42% of teens say the pandemic has increased the number of conversations they have had about mental health, which indicates teens are receptive to resources and timely interventions. Read more about the survey findings here.

How can we identify and help teens struggling with reemergence?

Knowing the signs and symptoms of mental health issues in teens as they readjust to their regular activities is imperative, especially for caregivers and educators. Parents should be on the look-out for unusual changes in behavior, mood and habits including:

  • School avoidance
  • Lack of interest in seeing friends
  • Loss of interest in activities and hobbies they once enjoyed
  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • Disruptive behavior or aggression

Learn more about helping teens navigate these challenges with our tip sheets for caregivers (in English and Spanish) and educators (in English and Spanish).

What other resources are available for families this fall?

In addition to the Reemergence Program, the Morgan Stanley Foundation has funded the development of the Child Mind Institute’s new Family Resource Center, a valuable online clearinghouse for families to learn more about children’s mental health, launching shortly. This new initiative provides easily accessible resources in both English and Spanish to families across the racial, geographic, and socioeconomic spectrum. In addition, JED High School, a program developed by Alliance partner The Jed Foundation is dedicated to helping school districts and high schools evaluate and strengthen their programming and systems related to suicide prevention, mental health, and substance misuse prevention. We are also promoting among educators additional resources from the Steve Fund, an Alliance partner and the nation's leading organization focused on supporting the mental health and emotional well-being of students of color.

Looking forward

The fallout from the pandemic will no doubt continue to have an impact on children’s mental health for the foreseeable future. We firmly believe there is not only an opportunity, but an obligation for the private sector to play a critical role in addressing the problem. The Morgan Stanley Foundation is proud to be making an impact on this critical issue by engaging the members of the Alliance for Children’s Mental Health and developing innovative solutions.

We encourage everyone to learn more about the issues that children are facing around their mental health. In understanding these challenges, we can all become advocates for the change that is critically needed in safeguarding the mental health of our youth. As we emerge from this time of disruption and trauma, we need to do everything we can to make sure they are prepared for the world that awaits them.