While COVID-19 variants continued to spread in 2022, the pandemic-related school shutdowns have all but disappeared and most districts have rolled back mitigation rules like social distancing.
But as external disruptions to schooling eased, educators face a new epidemic of mental health problems for children and adolescents. Researchers are just starting to understand the longer-term impacts of the pandemic on students’ minds and brains.
Among the findings this year:
1. We’re back to school, but not back to normal.
About 1 in 4 children and adolescents across 11 countries, including the United States, experienced strong “distress,” during the pandemic. Depression and anxiety have proven to be the most common mental health issues, but behavior and attention problems have also increased, especially in younger children.
The massive pandemic disruptions may have even prematurely aged teenagers’ brains by three to four years in its first months, in the same way severe trauma can change children’s brain development, according to one long-term neurological study.
2. The coronavirus itself puts children at more risk.
Pandemic-related social isolation, economic instability, and family stress all contributed to students’ stress burden, but contracting COVID-19 on its own nearly triples children’s risk of new mental health problems, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Across more than 3.3 million children nationwide under age 17, researchers found that more than a third of the children who tested positive for COVID-19 were diagnosed with a new mental health disorder within 30 days. Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety disorders, and trauma or stress disorders were the most common diagnoses.
3. Educators see screen time worsening behavior and learning problems
The nonprofit Common Sense Media, which tracks children’s screen and technology use, reports that daily screen time has spiked since the pandemic. Tweens ages 8-12 now use digital devices more than five and a half hours a day, and teenagers now spend nearly eight hours and 40 minutes a day on screens—not counting school technology.
In a survey last spring, more than 80 percent of educators told the EdWeek Research Center that they’ve seen higher dosages of screen time translate to more behavior issues and learning challenges in class for their students.
A separate study out this month also finds hours of playing video games and watchingvideo playlists based on algorithms, as on YouTube, raises preteens’ risk of developing obsessive-compulsive disorder.
4. Easing students’ mental health problems can cut absenteeism
Nearly half of schools saw worsening student absenteeism in the past year, and 70 percent of schools haven’t recovered their pre-pandemic attendance rates.
Anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems may account for some chronic absenteeism, particularly among students with disabilities. Some districts are exploring wellness centers, day schools, and other interventions to alleviate student anxiety and get kids back to class.
5. Schools need to prevent and respond to student suicide—even in elementary grades
Suicide has become the second leading cause of death for those 10 to 14, the third most common cause of death for those 15-24, and the 10th leading cause of death for those ages 5 to 9, according to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The risk is even higher for children of color.
Child advocates in Florida found a record number of children held for involuntary mental health evaluations, particularly for harming themselves.
Researchers say depression and suicidal ideation can look different in younger students than adolescents, and less than a third of children who commit suicide had a prior mental health diagnosis. That’s prompted some districts to introduce mental health screening and suicide prevention programs in the early grades.