A significant number of high school students in the United States experienced mental health issues during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a survey, with many considering suicide, feeling a sense of hopelessness and insecurity, increasing addictions, and suffering from abuses.
The online Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey (ABES) was conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from January to June 2021 and saw the participation of 7,998 students from 128 schools.
For students who had close relations at school, 28.4 percent reported poor mental health issues. Among students who did not feel close to people at school, this number was at 45.2 percent. Feelings of sadness or hopelessness and suicide attempts were also lower among students with close ties at school.
“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.”
Kyla Chester-Hopkins, a high school junior in Milwaukee, spent much of 2020 stuck in her bedroom. Even after returning to school in the fall of that year, she found that most of her classmates were absent.
Since the pandemic began, 55 percent of students suffered emotional abuse at the hands of a parent or another adult at home, 29 percent reported feeling insecure due to job loss among parents, 22 percent were insecure due to personal job loss, and 24 percent reported insecurity because of hunger. Due to the pandemic, 66 percent of students found it difficult to complete their schoolwork.
During the survey period, 31.6 percent of high school students admitted that they were using tobacco products, marijuana, prescription opioids, or alcohol. While 19.5 percent of students engaged in alcohol use, 15.4 percent used electronic vapor products, 12.8 percent used marijuana, 4.3 percent admitted to prescription opioid misuse, 3.3 percent smoked cigarettes, and 1.9 percent used smokeless tobacco.
One in three students who used alcohol or drugs said they used these substances more during the pandemic. While one-third of students who used electronic vapor products did so on a daily basis, 22.4 percent of students who drank alcohol did it at least six times a month.
By January 2021, Sequoyah was searching Google for keywords like “symptoms of depression” and “do I have a mental illness?” In April, his friend found him dead. Sequoyah had overdosed on the drug methadone.
A third of the students reported perceived racism, which was highest among Asian students at 63.9 percent, black students at 55.2 percent, and multiracial students at 54.5 percent. Perceived racism was higher among those with poor mental health than those who did not report poor mental health.
“These data echo a cry for help,” said CDC Acting Principal Deputy Director Debra Houry. “The COVID-19 pandemic has created traumatic stressors that have the potential to further erode students’ mental wellbeing.”
Even before the pandemic, mental health issues among youth were a concern. Nationwide, 26.1 percent of high school students reported feeling persistent sadness or hopelessness in 2009, a number that jumped to 36.8 percent in 2019, and then to 44.2 percent in the current survey.
“The key to us moving forward out of this is to keep promoting social-emotional learning as a necessary skill,” she said. “People need mental health and physical health. It's just as important.”