Adolescent mental health issues rise during COVID-19

PHAA Australasian COVID-19 Virtual Conference

In December 2020, the PHAA co-convened a special edition virtual conference with the theme: Preventing, detecting, controlling and managing COVID-19 – reflections on 2020 and future challenges.

This article is one of a series on the mental health impacts of COVID-19 on the Australian community, as presented by experts to the special COVID-19 conference.

The following is based on a presentation by Dr Lisa Mundy from the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute.


The impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of adolescents: a longitudinal study


Compared to older people, young Australians have been relatively unaffected by the physical consequences of COVID-19 but there has been increasing evidence that the pandemic is and has impacted on their mental health and wellbeing.

Dr Lisa Munday, is Project Manager of the Childhood to Adolescence Transition Study (CATS) which began nine years ago as a unique longitudinal study of more than 1200 children in the middle years of school. The aim of the study is to improve our understanding of child health and emotional development in late childhood.

The CATS study started in Melbourne in 2012, and followed a group of grade three (8-9 year old) children, now aged 16-17 years, in year 11. The surveys collected data from parents, teachers and the students themselves and attracted high participation rates.

The study in 2020

Dr Munday said one of the biggest problems with ‘a proliferation of studies’ looking at the mental health of adolescents conducted during the 2020 pandemic was that they were cross-sectional with little or no relevant data collected before the pandemic.

‘There was a pressing need to have longitudinal studies which has sound data collected prior to the pandemic, so we can really understand which young people have been affected by the pandemic, as well as who might be particularly vulnerable,’ Dr Munday said. As a result, the CATS study provided extremely valuable data.

While younger people have escaped the worst of the pandemic in terms of their physical health, it has created other problems for this cohort.

‘Across the world the focus has been on minimising the transmission of the virus which naturally meant reducing social and physical interaction between young people,’ Dr Munday said.

‘So, this resulted in lockdowns, school closures, physical distancing and quarantine for those individuals who needed it. This resulted in limited social interactions at a time when this is really important for the development of adolescents, particularly in terms of their emotional and social development.’

The 2020 CATS questionnaire measured levels of depression and anxiety amongst the young participants.

Study findings

The study showed depressive symptoms were worse for girls than boys, and started to rise from years 6 and 7. For years 11, nearly 50 per cent of girls were reporting high levels of depressive symptoms. The rates were lower for boys and were at about 17 per cent for teenage boys in year 11.

For anxiety symptoms there was a similar trend, moving upwards during the transition form primary to high school. There was a gradual and more noticeable increase for girls with one in three reporting anxiety in year 11, compared to one in 10 for boys of the same age.

About 15 per cent of girls and one in four boys had no prior history of mental health problems.

Using postcodes, the survey also measured the impact of disadvantage via socio-economic status. For girls, those in the most disadvantaged areas were more than two times more likely to experience depression during the COVID pandemic, however, there was no evidence of the impact of socio-economic status on mental health problems for boys.


‘The findings of the CATS study helps us understand the short and long-term impacts of COVID on the mental health of adolescents, as well as understanding who may be most at risk of poor mental health. This will enable us to provide preventative interventions to support them,’ Dr Munday said.

‘In the long-term we need to be able to understand who might be most at risk of any long-term persisting effects.’

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