The findings are based on a survey of a nationally representative sample of 7,700 teenagers conducted during the first six months of 2021, when they were in the middle of their first full pandemic school year. They were asked about a variety of topics, including their mental health, alcohol and drug use, and whether they had experienced violence at home or at school. They were also asked if they had experienced racism.
Although young people have been spared the brunt of the virus – falling ill and dying at much lower rates than older people – they could still pay a high price for the pandemic, having come of age through isolation, uncertainty, economic turbulence and, for many, pain.
At a press conference, Kathleen A. Ethier, chief of the CDC’s division of adolescent and school health, said the survey results underscore the vulnerability of some students, including LGBTQ youth and students who said they were treated unfairly because of their race. And female students are much worse off than their male peers.
“All students have been affected by the pandemic, but not all students have been affected equally,” Ethier said.
This isn’t the first time officials have warned of a teen mental health crisis. In October, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a national child and adolescent mental health emergencyclaiming that its members “treat young people with increasing rates of depression, anxiety, trauma, loneliness, and suicidality that will have lasting impacts on them, their families, and their communities.”
In December, Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy issued an advisory on protecting the mental health of young people.
“The unfathomable pandemic-era death toll, pervasive sense of fear, economic instability and forced physical distancing from loved ones, friends and communities have exacerbated the unprecedented stress young people were already facing.” , wrote Murthy. “It would be a tragedy if we postpone one public health crisis only to allow another to develop in its place.”
The CDC investigation paints a portrait of a generation reeling from the pandemic, struggling with food insecurity, academic difficulties, poor health and abuse at home. Nearly 30% of teens surveyed said a parent or other adult in their household lost their job during the pandemic, and a quarter went hungry. Two-thirds said they had difficulty with schoolwork.
But the survey also offers hope, finding that teens who feel connected to school report much lower rates of poor health. The finding draws attention to the critical role schools can play in a student’s mental health.
Ethier said the findings add to a body of research that shows feeling connected at school can be “a protective factor” for students. Schools can deliberately foster connection in a number of ways, including teaching teachers how to better manage classrooms, facilitating student clubs, and making sure LGBTQ students feel welcome. Such measures can help all students. — and not just the most vulnerable — to do better, she said.
“When you make schools less toxic for the most vulnerable students, all students benefit — and the reverse is also true,” Ethier said.
The survey results also underscore the particular vulnerability of LGBTQ students, who reported higher rates of suicide attempts and poor mental health. Almost half of gay, lesbian and bisexual teens said they had considered suicide during the pandemic, compared to 14% of their heterosexual peers.
Girls, too, reported doing worse than boys. They were twice as likely to report poor mental health. More than one in four girls said they had seriously considered attempting suicide during the pandemic, twice as many as boys. They also reported higher rates of alcohol and tobacco use than boys.
And, for the first time, the CDC asked teens if they thought they had ever been treated unfairly or badly at school because of their race or ethnicity. Asian American students reported the highest levels of racist encounters, with 64% responding affirmatively, followed by black students and multiracial students, about 55% of whom reported racism. Students who reported facing racism at school reported higher rates of poor mental health and were more likely to report having a physical, mental or emotional problem that made it difficult to concentrate.
The study also shed light on household stress. One in 10 teens reported experiencing physical abuse at home, and more than half reported experiencing emotional abuse, including being called names, belittled or called names.
The survey also revealed that students who felt connected at school fared much better than those who did not. Teens who reported feeling “close to people at school” were significantly less likely to report having attempted or thought about attempting suicide, and they were significantly less likely to report poor mental health than those who did not feel not connected to school. The same is true for teenagers who feel virtually connected to friends, family members and clubs.
“Comprehensive strategies that improve connections with others at home, in the community and at school could support better mental health in young people during and after the pandemic,” the report concludes.
John Gies, principal of Shelby High School in Shelby, Ohio, said he’s noticed an increase in his “struggling” students. Sometimes they didn’t make eye contact. Other times, students with no previous disciplinary issues took action and ended up in his office.
So he used some of the money the school received from the US bailout to connect more students with counseling, and created an arrangement to bring counselors from a local counseling center to the school several times a week. The school has created a support group for grieving students and for a cohort of freshmen who educators fear may fall through the cracks.
“The struggle for mental health was there” before the pandemic, Gies said. “The pandemic has really brought it to the surface and actually made it a little bit worse.”