COVID-19’s Impact on Teenagers’ Mental Health

Doug Nemecek, M.D., chief medical officer, behavioral health at Evernorth, talks about the mental health issues teenagers are facing.

COVID-19 has played a role in mental health challenges of teenagers and young adults. About 80% of working parents reported impact on the mental health of their teenage children as a result of the pandemic, including new or increased levels of anxiety, depression, behavioral issues, and problems with social interactions. This is the finding of a recent survey conducted by the Economist for Cigna and Evernorth.

Recent data from Evernorth's pharmacy benefit manager, Express Scripts, confirms these findings. From 2017 to 2021, pharmacy claims data show a 41% increase in antidepressant medication prescriptions for children aged 13 to 19, and a 28% increase for those aged 12 and under.

But even before the COVID-19 pandemic, many teenagers were struggling with their emotional well-being, Doug Nemecek, M.D., chief medical officer, behavioral health, Evernorth, told FormularyWatch by email. Research has shown that more teenagers have been experiencing mental health issues over the past decade.

He said there are many reasons for this, including the use of social media, which increases exposure to bullying, unrealistic views of reality and peer pressure. But he said this isn’t the only reason. Younger people were lonelier than any other age group surveyed by Cigna in 2018, reporting lack of companionship, and feelings of isolation and being left out as some of the main reasons why.

In the more recent survey, “some parents reported an increase in teenage substance use, mental illness diagnoses, self-harm behaviors, and suicidal thoughts. Although the number of parents reporting these incidents is smaller, these increases are a sign of serious emerging mental health issues that need to be addressed,” Nemecek said.

But accessing mental health services can be challenging. “The journey to getting behavioral care can be lonely, confusing, and tiring,” Nemecek said.“We need to give people access to personalized support that is going to help them on their own unique mental health journey.

To help address this challenge of access, Evernorth is working to not only expand its network of providers, but make sure people can get the right care. “Health coaches are available to help customers prevent the onset of serious conditions like anxiety and depression. Higher levels of care providers (therapists, psychologists, and psychiatrists) are available to address more acute needs as-needed. By bringing these entities into our behavioral network as contracted providers, this allows our customers to use these services,” he said.

Virtual care, he said, is making it easier for people to access mental healthcare services. “We believe that digital behavioral health partners will play a key role going forward in ensuring that our customers have simple and timely access to behavioral health care. Our partnerships with various nontraditional providers such as Talkspace, Sondermind, Meru and NoCD are just some of the ways that we are helping move the conversation about behavioral health, and virtual care delivery forward.”

Navigating the mental healthcare ecosystem can be challenging for parents and caregivers, Nemecek said, which is why Evernorth offers a program specific for caregivers, as well as virtual coaching resources, such as Ginger.