Lisa and her daughter, Emma, have a powerful story to tell about mental health and the pandemic, but it's not easy to share. Their pain is real, and the stigma is strong, but by changing their names for this article, they are opening up about their experience.
Emma was a high school sophomore when the world shut down amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many other students, she spent months alone in her bedroom attending virtual school. By senior year, she was back in class in person, but the pandemic compromised her mental health.
"All the isolation combined with the challenges of depression and anxiety she already faced fed into her insecurities," Lisa said.
Emma began eating lunch alone in her car, she struggled to concentrate and complete her school work, and she developed thoughts of suicide. She left school for nearly six weeks, spending a few days in the hospital before trying several outpatient treatment programs while finishing the school year.
After graduation, Emma felt excited about heading to college, but she wasn't the only one who arrived with mental health issues. When it all became too much to bear, she came home after a suicide attempt.
"She got swallowed up by trying to navigate the challenges of being a freshman in college and lost sight of taking care of her mental health," said Lisa.
The pandemic's impact on young people like Emma is well-documented with alarming data about soaring rates of mental illness. One big question: why?
"Youth, particularly adolescents, have a pre-disposed sensitivity to environment and family stressors. The pandemic compounded all of that, exacerbating the isolation and loneliness that teens were already experiencing. It was like fuel on a fire," said David Lipschutz, LCSW, CADC, and Director of JCFS Chicago's Response for Teens.
While Lipschutz saw families facing increased conflict around school and shared space, he observed a profound fear of catching COVID-19 and losing family members who were particularly vulnerable to the virus.
More than three years later, while the virus has subsided, we are left with the fallout.
"What remains are real social, economic, and political conflicts, and I think teens are also being exposed to what's going on, and it's overwhelming," said Lipschutz.
Those headline-grabbing issues are likely behind the coinciding spike in eating disorders, according to Dr. Susan McClanahan, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist, the co-founder of SpringSource Psychological Center, and an eating disorder specialist.
"People try to control what they can control, and you can control what you eat. It's a way to control all the anxiety and everything that's out in the world that's so scary," she said.
McClanahan is also the daughter of Holocaust survivors. "I knew bad things could happen, but this [younger] generation hadn't seen anything like this. That something so terrible could happen was a trauma in and of itself," she said.
In addition, McClanahan worries about the impact on older adults. "People who were vibrant and felt like nothing was going to catch up to them were suddenly the most vulnerable group, and there was a stigma around them," she said.
Regardless of age, the pandemic brought more time to look at our phones and participate in "doom scrolling," which leaves us absorbing an onslaught of negative information. "I think we have to be deliberate about what we invite into our lives, and how much time we spend on bad news," McClanahan said.
Coming out of the pandemic, she sees people changing their priorities.
"My parents are from Hungary, and they were scratching their heads looking at our society. Putting career front and center and saying, 'we're gonna wait until later in life to enjoy ourselves, is not how we should be living our lives," she said. "We should be focusing on community, connection, friendship, and family. I think our society was really reminded that there's nothing more important than that now."
That shift in focus, specifically within families, may also make a difference for young people. "It's important for parents to ground themselves and create a space for kids to reflect and talk about their experiences," said Lipschutz, adding, "It's vital for parents to listen and be emotionally receptive to what their kids are expressing."
Julie Mangurten Weinberg is a Northbrook-based freelance journalist with more than 20 years of experience in broadcast, print, and digital media.
Understanding JUF's Mental Health Initiative
In the face of record incidences of mental illness, JUF recently responded to the mental health needs of the community with $2 million in grants to eight agencies for new and expanded mental health services throughout the community. The enhanced funding came on the heels of the launch of the JUF Mental Health Initiative--which at the height of the COVID pandemic had invested over $3 million in additional funds for mental health services and infrastructure. Last year, the initiative enabled JUF agencies to provide 47,000 people with an array of mental health services and resources.
You're not alone!
*If you're in emotional distress or suicidal crisis, call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline at "988" or visit 988lifeline.org. If you believe that someone else is in danger of suicide and you have their contact info, contact your local law enforcement for immediate help. You can also encourage the person to contact a suicide prevention hotline using the info above.
*In addition, the JCFS Chicago Access Team is available Monday through Friday to connect you to the appropriate service, from counseling, psychological testing and assessment, early childhood development, services for people with disabilities, Jewish community programs, and more. For more info or to access JCFS Chicago services, call 855-275-5237 or email