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Disclosures: Ethier and Mermin report no relevant financial disclosures. Please see the study for all other authors’ relevant financial disclosures.
March 31, 2022
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More than one-third of US high schoolers report poor mental health during pandemic

Disclosures: Ethier and Mermin report no relevant financial disclosures. Please see the study for all other authors’ relevant financial disclosures.
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More than one-third of high school students in the United States reported experiencing poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to survey results published in MMWR.

The CDC conducted an online survey from January to June in 2021 to examine student experiences during the pandemic. A total of 7,705 students from 128 high schools were included in the published analysis.

Girl at psychiatrist
Experts have warned that the pandemic was worsening a pediatric mental health crisis. Source: Adobe Stock

More than 37% of them reported experiencing stress, anxiety or depression during the pandemic. Kathleen Ethier, PhD, director of the CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health, said on a conference call with reporters that 44% of students said they felt “so persistently sad and hopeless that they were unable to engage in their regular activities.”

“These data and others like it show us that young people and their families have been under incredible levels of stress during the pandemic,” Ethier said. “Our data exposed cracks, and uncovers an important layer of insight into the extreme disruptions that some youths have encountered during the pandemic.”

Jonathan Mermin, MD, MPH, director of the CDC’s National Center for HIV, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention — the CDC center that addresses school-based health — said on the call that the worsening mental health of the nation’s children “was a growing public health issue even before America had ever heard of COVID-19.”

“For over 2 years the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged our nation not just with the tragedy of losing over a million lives, but also the day-to-day pandemic-related disruptions that have been life altering and often isolating for youth,” Mermin said. “Although the nation has adapted, this has been a hard experience, especially so for our youth and our youth have had to adjust to different social, educational and family circumstances while they are growing up, and these experiences, both good and bad, have affected their physical and mental well-being.”

Ethier cited data that 55% of respondents reported experiencing emotional abuse in the last year by a parent or other adult in the home — including swearing at, insulting, or putting down the student — 11% reported experiencing physical abuse, 29% reported a parent or other adult in their home had lost a job, and 24% reported going hungry.

Findings from the survey also highlighted that a sense of being cared for, supported, and belonging at school — which the survey dubbed “school connectedness” — had an important effect on students during a time of severe disruption.

Further, respondents who felt connected to adults and peers at school were significantly less likely than those who did not to report persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness (35% vs. 53%). They were also less likely to consider attempting suicide (14% vs. 26%) or attempt suicide (6% vs. 12%). Still, fewer than half (47%) of youth reported feeling close to people at school during the pandemic.

“We know from other research that youth with poor mental health are more likely to struggle with school and grades, decision making and their physical health,” Mermin said. “Furthermore, mental health problems in youth are often associated with other behavioral risks such as drug use, experiencing violence and higher risk sexual behaviors, and these problems can have lasting negative effects well into adulthood.”

The AAP and other pediatric groups in October said that a “worsening crisis in child and adolescent mental health” brought on by COVID-19 “and the ongoing struggle for racial justice” constituted a national emergency, citing findings that claimed approximately one in four youth globally are experiencing clinically elevated depression symptoms, and around one in five are experiencing anxiety — both double their prepandemic estimates.

References:

Jones SE, et al. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2022;doi:10.15585/mmwr.su7103a3.

Rico A, et al. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2022;doi:10.15585/mmwr.su7103a1.