A significant number of high school students reported experiencing poor mental health or persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness during the pandemic, according to a new CDC report—adding to growing concerns about a mental health crisis among children and adolescents in the country.
The pandemic's impact on adolescent mental health
For the study, researchers analyzed data from the Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey collected between January and June 2021. In total, 7,705 public and private high school students from 128 schools across all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia answered the anonymous, online survey.
Among the respondents, 37.1% said they experienced poor mental health during the pandemic, and 44.2% said they felt "persistently sad or hopeless." For comparison, between 2009 and 2019, the percentage of teens who reported these "persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness" rose from 26% to 37%.
In addition, 19.9% of students said they seriously considered attempting suicide, and 9% had attempted suicide during the 12 months before the survey.
Certain groups were also more likely to report poor mental health than others. In particular, female students were more likely than male students to say they had poor mental health during the pandemic (48.9% vs 24.4%, respectively) or had persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness (56.5% vs 31.4%, respectively). Female students were also around twice as likely to have considered attempting suicide than male students.
Adolescents who identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual were also significantly more likely to have poor mental health than those who identified as heterosexual (63.8% vs 30.3%, respectively). Notably, almost half of gay, lesbian, or bisexual students had seriously considered attempting suicide compared with 13.6% of heterosexual students.
In addition, students who said they had been treated unfairly or badly at school because of their race or ethnicity reported higher rates of poor mental health. These students were also more likely to report a physical, mental, or emotional problem that made it difficult for them to concentrate, remember things, or make decisions.
"All students were impacted by the pandemic, but not all students were impacted equally," said Kathleen Ethier, head of CDC's division of adolescent and school health.
One factor that mitigated students' poor mental health was feelings of connectedness, either to other people at school or to family, friends, and others through virtual means.
Compared with students who did not feel close to people at school, students who did reported lower rates of poor mental health, persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness, and more. Similar results were found among students who were virtually connected to others during the pandemic, compared with those who were not.
"Comprehensive strategies that improve connections with others at home, in the community, and at school might foster improved mental health among youths during and after the pandemic," the report's authors wrote.
According to the Washington Post, CDC's report adds to growing concerns about a mental health crisis among the nation's children and adolescents that was further exacerbated by the pandemic.
The report's findings "echo a cry for help," said Debra Houry, CDC's acting principal deputy director. "The Covid-19 pandemic has created traumatic stressors that have the potential to further erode students' mental wellbeing."
In October, several medical organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children's Hospital Association, declared a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health. And Surgeon General Vivek Murthy in December issued an advisory on youths' mental health.
The Biden administration has also made an effort to include children and adolescents in its comprehensive mental health care agenda. Specifically, the administration's plan proposes multiple efforts to curb the harmful effects social media can have on kids, including asking Congress to ban excessive data collection from children and advertising geared toward them. In addition, the plan proposes expanding early childhood and in-school services that help prevent the progression of mental health problems among young children.
According to Katelyn Chi, a 17-year-old junior in California, it is important that policymakers take adolescent mental health seriously instead of dismissing young people's concerns.
"I'd like to ask them to provide us with a lot more resources and a lot more empathy on what we're going through," Chi said. "With things so hard right now, it's hard to see the future as something better."
John Gies, principal of Shelby High School in Ohio, said, "The mental health struggle had been there" before the pandemic. "The pandemic really brought it to the surface and made it actually a little bit worse." (Henderson, MedPage Today, 3/31; AP/Modern Healthcare, 3/31; Stobbe, AP/STAT News, 3/31; Balingit, Washington Post, 3/31; Reed/Bettelheim, Axios, 4/1)