NIH Record - National Institutes of Health

Signs of Mental Health Resilience in Youth During Pandemic

Two smiling teen girls run, hair blowing in the wind, along a city street.
Study shows healthy behaviors such as engaging in physical activity was a top contributor to better mental health outcomes for youth during the pandemic.

Photo:  Shutterstock/MJTH

Longitudinal survey data of more than 3,000 adolescents ages 11-14 recorded before and during the early months of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 found that supportive relationships with family and friends and healthy behaviors—such as engaging in physical activity and better sleep—appeared to shield against the harmful effects of the pandemic on adolescents’ mental health.

The research, published in the Journal of Adolescent Health and supported by NIDA, is based on data from the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study, the largest long-term study of brain development and child health ever conducted in the United States.

Researchers also explored predictors of perceived stress, anxiety and depressive symptoms, and found that girls were more likely than boys to experience psychological distress during the pandemic. Psychosocial factors, including poorer quality and functioning of family relationships, more screen time and witnessing discrimination in relation to the pandemic, also predicted youth distress. 

In this study, adolescents and their parents completed pre-pandemic assessments by February 2020, which documented baseline parent/caregiver reports of externalizing problems (e.g., acting aggressively) and sleep disturbances (e.g., sleep duration) and youth reports of internalizing problems (e.g., feeling anxious or depressed). Participating parents and youth then separately completed 3 online Covid-19 surveys, conducted between May and August 2020, which featured more than 200 items across psychosocial and lifestyle domains.

Researchers used machine-learning methods to look for patterns of positive affect, anxiety, stress and depressive symptoms across the surveys. They then interpreted the results through an algorithm, ranking variables according to their importance for predicting youth mental health outcomes. 

“This study," said NIDA director Dr. Nora Volkow, "helps us understand how modifiable lifestyle factors affect the mental health and well-being of adolescents, and it can inform the development of interventions to protect youth during a major life stress” now and in the future.

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