FORT LAUDERDALE - COVID is not over, but the pandemic exposed a troubling trend - children's mental health has suffered.
According to the Mental Health Alliance, in 2022, fifteen percent of kids ages 12 to 17 reported experiencing at least one major depressive episode. That was 306,000 more than last year.
"It's bad. It's a crisis" said Katherine Lewis, a licensed family therapist at The Bougainvilla House, a nonprofit treatment center in Ft Lauderdale that describes itself as a safe place for children and youth to grow emotionally.
To understand why children's mental health is in such a fragile state, CBS4 was given rare access to the center.
With their families' permission, we spoke with teenagers who opened up about the struggles of growing up in the digital age with the compounded challenges of the pandemic.
"I grew up on technology," said 13-year-old Heidi Sanchez.
But therapists say all that technology could be having a negative effect on her.
According to The Bougainvilla House administration, challenges children face are amplified on social media where they are "put under a microscope and visible for the world to see."
Sanchez has social anxiety, is dealing with past family conflict, and has experienced depression. She said she felt isolated during the school lockdown and dealt with the many ups and downs of working online
"I was in a Google class. I only had two courses and I was doing the work. Then I realized I didn't scroll down the whole quarter and I was failing four other things," said Sanchez.
That created more stress and anxiety for her.
The Bougainvilla House said in 2020, just before the pandemic hit, they were treating 70 kids weekly. Now, on average, they treat 185 kids a week, more than double the previous number.
They believe the increase can be directly linked to social media and technology
"I am glad more kids are coming in but these things were there before," said Lewis.
She believes social media and excessive screen time can lead to anxiety and depression.
"Certainly it's a double edge sword. Where it's part of their culture, so they have the support of their friends online but it's also a bigger source of pain. You see what's out there. People are more successful than you. They have better grades so there are higher expectations," said Lewis.
Sanchez said she noticed big changes in her classmates when in-person learning resumed at school.
"I think the biggest impact was the amount of social skills we have. Because I noticed in class some kids will be yelling at the teacher instead of raising their hand," she said.
Sanchez said when she's not in school she's in front of a screen at least four hours a day.
"I get affected by the way people perceive me. One time someone called me stupid and I took that to heart," she said.
Along with Sanchez, we asked two others in therapy about their social media habits and stressors.
Grace is 12 years old and Jasmine is 18 and has graduated high school
This year Jasmine said she spends more than six hours a day on social media.
"I think being in a group is better than during COVID when you were locked in a house," she said.
Jasmine, Grace, and Sanchez said being out of school during the pandemic bothered them most. They said they missed the structure of being in school, a reason to get going every day.
But they all agreed that communicating online is more comfortable than in person
"There's less risk so if you read something you don't have to immediately offer a response," said Jasmine.
So what can parents and teachers do to combat this mental health crisis?
For starters, Lewis said parents can provide an open space
"I think children knowing there is a space that they can talk about problems. They may not use it but it is healthy and healing in itself," she said, "Knowing there is a space for that
Sanchez said, "I used to lock myself in my room and not talk to my mom a lot."
But she said over time she's learned that listening is a prescription for better mental health
"The best thing a parent can do is listen, that's what most kids want. Sometimes listening is better than comfort," she said.
Those wanting more information on the programs offered at The Bougainvilla House can call (954) 765-6283 or visit tbhcares.org.
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