The mental strain of pandemic shutdowns has changed young brains, but doctors say simple strategies can help

SAN BERNARDINO COUNTY, Calif. (KABC) — As we head into a new year, many young people are still grappling with the aftermath of the pandemic isolation. Not only are many reporting poorer mental health, but new evidence shows the experience was taking its physical toll.

In the spring of 2020, Katelyn Reece was a 16-year-old grappling with the trauma of school closures.

“I lost pretty much all my friends from high school. I technically didn’t do my high school because there was a lot of stress,” she said.

Overwhelming anxiety and depression led to her being expelled from school.

Sometimes Reece felt very dark. She had her own problems and contemplated suicide.

“During the pandemic, I’ve seen an increase in suicide attempts, particularly among our youthful population,” said Dr. Ashley Zucker, Kaiser Permanente’s director of psychiatry for San Bernardino County.

She said the mental toll of shutdowns is similar to early childhood exposure to violence, neglect and family dysfunction.

“It’s a version of a traumatic event,” Zucker said.

It is a traumatic event from which children are still recovering.

Sugar indicates this new research in the journal Biological Psychiatry, showing that academic disruption and social limitations lead to accelerated brain aging and larger amygdala volume in children and adolescents.

“The things that we deal with emotionally actually have some biological changes, some physiological changes,” she said.

Can it be undone? Zucker said the brain’s neuroplasticity allows it to adapt, change and heal.

“Rest, good sleep, regular routine, good eating habits, you know, exercise, all of these are good for our brains,” Zucker said.

With the guidance and support of Dr. Zucker and her family, Reece finishes school and works for a large restaurant chain. She said taking deep breaths and mentally regrouping helps her deal with anxiety.

“I can take a second and really analyze what I’m doing. Sometimes that’s all I need to calm down,” Reece said.

Her mother’s easy check-ins made all the difference. It’s a piece of advice Zucker gives to all parents.

“If they’re recalcitrant, just let them know. You know, ‘Hey, if you’re ready to talk, I’ll just be there, you know,’ and try to keep it very non-judgmental. Again very honest and very open,” said Zucker.

Reece’s mother always asked if she needed more and assured her that she was there for her.

“It’s very helpful,” she said.

If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or mental health issues, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (or just dial 988) to connect with a trained counselor put, or visit the NSPL website.

Copyright © 2022 KABC Television, LLC. All rights reserved. The mental strain of pandemic shutdowns has changed young brains, but doctors say simple strategies can help

Laura Coffey

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