New government analyses are providing a comprehensive and troubling snapshot of the mental health of America’s youth during the COVID-19 pandemic.
One analysis of data from a nationally representative survey of high school students taken during the first half of 2021 shows that 37% of students reported experiencing poor mental health either most of the time or always during the pandemic, with more than 31% of students reporting being in such a state during the past 30 days.
More than 44% students also reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless within the past year, with nearly 20% saying they’d seriously considered attempting suicide and 9% attempting suicide in that time period.
Notably, feeling connected with others at school appeared to be a significant factor in whether students reported experiencing poor mental health. The study found approximately 47% of youth surveyed reported feeling close to people at their school. Among those students, 28% reported poor mental health during the pandemic compared with 45% who did not agree that they felt close to others at school.
Also, 35% of youth who reported feeling connected to others at school reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness compared with 53% of their counterparts. Only 14% of those feeling connected during the pandemic reported they considered attempting suicide versus 26% who did not report feeling connected, while 6% of those who felt connected reported attempting suicide compared with 12% of students who did not report such social ties.
Similar disparities in mental health outcomes occurred between students who reported being more connected to others, including family and friends, through a device like a phone or computer, and those who were less virtually connected.
“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,” researchers wrote.
A particularly large disparity in mental health status reported was between heterosexual students and those who identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual. More than three-quarters of lesbian, gay and bisexual high school students reported having persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness compared with 37% of students who identified as heterosexual, the study found. More than a quarter of gay, lesbian and bisexual students also reported attempting suicide in the past 12 months, compared with just 5% of heterosexual students.
The analysis was one of several studies published Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that examined adolescent behaviors and experiences in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“These data echo a cry for help,” Dr. Debra Houry, the CDC’s acting principal deputy director, said in a statement. “The COVID-19 pandemic has created traumatic stressors that have the potential to further erode students’ mental well-being. Our research shows that surrounding youth with the proper support can reverse these trends and help our youth now and in the future.”
A companion analysis published Thursday also found that more than half of students reported experiencing emotional abuse by a parent or other adult in the home during the pandemic – such as being insulted or sworn at – while 11% reported they were physically abused. Approximately 29% experienced a parent or adult in their home losing a job amid the pandemic.
Additional findings showed that about 1 in 3 students who had ever used alcohol or an illicit drug reported using such substances more during the pandemic, and that approximately one-third of students reported being treated badly or unfairly in school due to their race or ethnicity in their lifetime. Two-thirds of Asian students and more than half of both Black and multiracial students reported what researchers called “perceived racism.”
The new findings offer additional evidence pointing to worsening youth mental health. Data predating the pandemic, for example, indicates persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness among high school students increased by more than 40% from 2009 to 2019.
“This data and others like it show us that young people and their families have been under incredible levels of stress during the pandemic,” Kathleen Ethier, director of the CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health, said in a call with reporters. “Our data exposes cracks and uncovers an important layer of insight into the extreme disruptions that some youth have encountered during the pandemic.”
Dr. Jonathan Mermin, director of the National Center for HIV, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention, said the pandemic’s impact on youth mental health will be felt well after the pandemic itself is over.
“Together,” he said, “we can mitigate its negative effects, increase health equity, and create a healthier future for all youth.”