SAN BERNARDINO COUNTY, Calif. (KABC) -- As we contemplate a new year, many young people are still dealing with the residual effects of pandemic isolation. Not only are many reporting poorer mental health, but new findings reveal the experience took a physical toll on their brains.
In Spring 2020, Katelyn Reece was a 16-year-old dealing with the trauma of school closures.
"I lost pretty much all of my friends from high school. I didn't technically get my high school diploma because there was a lot of stress," she said.
Overwhelming anxiety and depression led to her being dropped from school.
At times, Reece felt very dark. She had her own issues and contemplated suicide.
"Throughout the pandemic, I have seen an increase in suicide attempts in our adolescent population in particular," said Kaiser Permanente's Chief of Psychiatry for San Bernardino County, Dr. Ashley Zucker.
She said the mental toll of shutdowns are similar to early life exposure to violence, neglect, and family dysfunction.
"It is a version of a traumatic event," Zucker said.
It's a traumatic event kids are still recovering from.
Zucker points to new research in the journal "Biological Psychiatry" that reveals the fallout of academic disruptions and social restrictions led to accelerated brain aging and larger amygdala volume in kids and adolescents.
"The things that we deal with emotionally actually do have some biological, some physiological changes," she said.
Can it be reversed? Zucker said the brain's neuroplasticity allows it to adapt, change and heal.
"Rest, good sleep, regular routine, good eating habits, you know, movement, all of that is beneficial to our brain," Zucker said.
With guidance and support from Dr. Zucker and her family, Reece is finishing up her school credits and works for a large restaurant chain. She said taking deep breaths and regrouping mentally helps her deal with anxiety.
"I'm able to take a second and really analyze what I'm doing. Sometimes that's all it takes for me to be able to calm down," Reece said.
Her mom's simple check-ins made all the difference. It's advice Zucker gives all parents.
"If they're resistant, just let them know. You know, 'Hey, when you're ready to talk, just, like you know, I'm here for you' and try to keep it very sort of non-judgmental. Again, very honest and very open," Zucker said.
Reece's mom always asked if she needed more and reassured her that she there for her.
"It's very helpful," she said.
If you or someone you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts or mental health matters, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255 (or just by dialing 988) to connect with a trained counselor or visit the NSPL site.