Despite widespread concern about the impact of COVID-19 on adolescent mental health, there remains limited empirical evidence that can causally attribute changes to the pandemic. The current study aimed to overcome existing methodological limitations by exploiting a serendipitously occurring natural experiment within two ongoing, multi-phase cluster randomized controlled trials. Depressive symptoms (primary outcome), externalizing difficulties and life satisfaction (secondary outcomes) were assessed at baseline (phase 1 [pre-COVID-19 group]: September - October 2018, phase 2 [COVID-19 group]: September - October 2019) and 1-year follow-up (pre-COVID-19 group: January - March 2020, COVID-19 group: February - April 2021). Participants in phase 1 (N = 6419) acted as controls. In phase 2, participants (N = 5031) were exposed to the COVID-19 pandemic between the baseline and follow-up assessments providing a natural experimental design. The primary analysis used a random intercept linear multivariable regression model with phase (exposure to the COVID-19 pandemic) included as the key predictor while controlling for baseline scores and individual and school-level covariates. Depressive symptoms were higher and life satisfaction scores lower in the group exposed to the COVID-19 pandemic. Had the COVID-19 pandemic not occurred, we estimate that there would be 6% fewer adolescents with high depressive symptoms. No effect of exposure to the pandemic on externalizing difficulties was found. Exploratory analyses to examine subgroup differences in impacts suggest that the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on adolescent mental health may have been greater for females than males. Given the widespread concern over rising adolescent mental health difficulties prior to the pandemic, this paper quantifies the additional impacts of the pandemic. A properly resourced, multi-level, multi-sector public health approach for improving adolescent mental health is necessary. Following in-principle acceptance, the approved Stage 1 version of this manuscript was preregistered on the OSF at https://doi.org/10.17605/OSF.IO/B25DH. This preregistration was performed prior to data analysis.


Published by the Royal Society under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/, which permits unrestricted use, provided the original author and source are credited.

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Mansfield, R., Santos, J., Deighton, J., Hayes, D., Velikonja, T., Boehnke, J. & Patalay, P. 2022, 'The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on adolescent mental health: A natural experiment', Royal Society Open Science, 9(4), article no: 211114. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.211114

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Last updated: 16 June 2022
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