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A silhouetted person sitting on a bench looking into a misty abyss. Text Reads: Depression and the Pandemic

Lifestyle Behaviors and Depression Symptoms for Families During the COVID-19 Pandemic

depression kids/parenting Apr 29, 2021
Timothy Culbert, MD, IFMCP

Depression and the Pandemic 

Mental health difficulties for all populations have increased throughout the pandemic. I have also noticed a shift in these struggles as we've moved through the year. Many of my patients shifted from more stress and anxiety symptoms early on in the pandemic months an into irritability and depression later on (November 2020-February 2021). 

Why this shift?

The parents of the kids I've worked with have noted some key pandemic-related changes that may be contributing:

  • Disrupted schedules
  • Big changes in typical home routines
  • Less physical activity
  • Poor sleep
  • More screen time

The parents are right. These changes are contributing toward worrisome mental health struggles for the entire family. A recent study “The Impact of COVID 19 on Health Behavior, Stress, Financial and Food Security Among Middle to High Income Canadian Families with Young Children” was published in August of 2020 and followed 254 families (3). It concluded that during the pandemic:

  • Screen time increased among 74% of mothers, 61% of fathers, and 87% of kids.
  • Physical activity decreased among 59% of mothers, 52% of fathers, and 52% of children.
  • More than 50% of participants reported that eating and meal routines changed, with the most commonly reported change being increased snack food consumption.

Individuals in the US also reported spending more time indoors due to quarantines, restrictions in movement, and fear of getting sick: https://www.statista.com/chart/21408/time-americans-spend-indoors-outdoors/

Additionally, 63% of parents stated that their teenagers spent more time on social media platforms during COVID19 quarantine times: https://www.luriechildrens.org/en/blog/social-media-parenting-statistics/

This is a concern considering that increased use of social media is associated with depression. Several recent studies showed that teenagers and young adults who spent the most time on Instagram, Facebook, and other platforms were shown to have a substantially (from 13 to 66 percent) higher rate of reported depression than those who spent the least time: https://childmind.org/article/is-social-media-use-causing-depression/

Lifestyle Behaviors and the Pandemic

My frequent conversations with kids and parents about these pandemic-related changes got me thinking about the power of lifestyle practices (e.g., sleep, exercise, and nutrition) on the development of depression symptoms for kids and teens during the pandemic. 

Research completed before COVID19 established that there are relationships between lifestyle practices and depression. For example:

  • Excessive use of electronics can lead to less exercise and also lead to sleep disturbance
  • Sleep deprivation often leads to depression symptoms
  • Lack of physical activity can lead to poor sleep
  • Sedentary behavior is a risk factor for depression
  • Poor diet can contribute to depression, potentially via inflammatory pathways, GI microbiome changes, leaky gut, or nutrient deficiencies 
  • Time in natural settings (versus built settings) can improve mood

My conclusion after considering all of these connections, is that along with other factors (stress, social isolation, trauma), disrupted lifestyle practices during the pandemic have contributed to more symptoms of depression in kids and teens (and likely their parents). However, we are resilient and we can heal from these wounds. Healthy lifestyle behaviors can be built back and new routines can be put into place.  

Check out our free Resilient Kids series for more support: https://www.naturalmentalhealth.com/parents


  1. Akbaraly T, Brunner E, Ferrie J, Marmot M, Kivimaki M, Singh-Manoux A. Dietary pattern and depressive symptoms in middle age. Br J Psychiatry. 2009;195(5):408-13.
  2. Alomari, M. A., Khabour, O. F., & Alzoubi, K. H. (2020). Changes in physical activity and sedentary behavior amid confinement: The bksq-covid-19 project. Risk Management and Healthcare Policy, 13, 1757. 
  3. Carroll, N., Sadowski, A., Laila, A., Hruska, V., Nixon, M., Ma, D. W., & Haines, J. (2020). The impact of COVID-19 on health behavior, stress, financial and food security among middle to high-income Canadian families with young children. Nutrients, 12(8), 2352.
  4. Holt M, Lee J, Morton K, Tonstad S. Trans fatty acid intake and emotion regulation. J Health Psychol. 2015;20(6):785-93.  
  5. Jiao, W. Y., Wang, L. N., Liu, J., Fang, S. F., Jiao, F. Y., Pettoello-Mantovani, M., & Somekh, E. (2020). Behavioral and emotional disorders in children during the COVID-19 epidemic. The journal of Pediatrics, 221, 264.

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This content is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not intended to provide medical advice and is not a replacement for advice and treatment from a medical professional. Consult your doctor or other qualified health professional before beginning any diet change, supplement, or lifestyle program. See our terms for more information.

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call the NAMI HelpLine: 1-800-950-6264 available Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. – 10 p.m., ET. OR text "HelpLine" to 62640 or email NAMI at [email protected]. Visit NAMI for more. You can also call or text SAMHSA at 988 or chat 988lifeline.org.