American teens were struggling with increasing rates of poor mental health even before the coronavirus pandemic hit. Now a report offers fresh evidence of the numerous ways disruptions to home and school routines during the past two years have made things much worse.
More than one-third of high school students suffered from poor mental health last year, and 44 percent of them experienced such persistent sadness and hopelessness that they stopped doing their usual activities, according to report from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). One in five teens seriously considered suicide, and almost 1 in 10 tried to kill themselves.
For many teens, home wasn’t a refuge when the pandemic forced schools to close. More than half of teens reported emotional abuse at home — including parents who swore at them, insulted them, or put them down. And 11 percent of teens reported physical abuse — being hit, beaten, kicked, or injured by a parent.
“These data echo a cry for help,” said Debra Houry, MD, MPH, the acting principal deputy director of the CDC, in a statement. “The COVID-19 pandemic has created traumatic stressors that have the potential to further erode students’ mental well-being.”
This is the CDC’s first nationally representative survey of high school students to assess teen mental health and well-being during the pandemic. Researchers published results of the online survey, which included responses from more than 7,700 teens, in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
The pandemic appears to have hit certain vulnerable populations especially hard.
Lesbian, gay, and bisexual teens were more than twice as likely to report poor mental health as their heterosexual peers. And three in four lesbian, gay, and bisexual teens reported persistent feelings of hopelessness and sadness. One in four of them attempted suicide, roughly five times the suicide rate seen among heterosexual teens.
Females also fared much worse than males — they were roughly twice as likely to report poor mental heath or to attempt suicide.
Youth who identified as American Indian or Alaskan Native were also more vulnerable than teens from other racial and ethnic groups. Half of them reported persistent hopelessness and sadness, and one in five attempted suicide.
Adolescents who managed to maintain social connections during the pandemic fared much better overall than the teens who felt the most isolated.
For example, when teens felt a sense of belonging at school and a sense that they were supported and cared for, 35 percent of them still felt hopeless during the pandemic. But more than half their peers did not have this sense of belonging.
Similarly, the proportion of teens who contemplated or attempted suicide was significantly lower among youth who reported a sense of belonging in school despite pandemic disruptions.
“School connectedness is a key to addressing youth adversities at all times — especially during times of severe disruptions,” said Kathleen Ethier, PhD, the director of the CDC’s division of adolescent and school health, in the statement.
“Students need our support now more than ever, whether by making sure that their schools are inclusive and safe or by providing opportunities to engage in their communities and be mentored by supportive adults,” Dr. Ethier said.