Student Well-Being What the Research Says

CDC: Teens’ Mental Health Showing Small Signs of Improving

By Sarah D. Sparks — May 15, 2023 2 min read
Young female teenager sitting hugging her knees and looking sad.
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COVID-19 is no longer a public health emergency, but pandemic-related mental health problems are far from over.

New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest mental health emergencies among adolescents have fallen somewhat compared to 2021, but the rate of girls with severe mental health problems remains significantly higher than it was in 2019.

Prior studies have found the combination of school and social disruptions, more screen time, and even lingering effects from the coronavirus itself can all worsen teenagers’ risks of mental health problems.

Mental health problems continue to be one of the biggest challenges interfering with learning recovery since the pandemic; more than half of teachers now report mental health problems make classroom management more difficult and hurt their students’ academic and social-emotional learning.

Statistics tell a complex story

CDC researchers track the weekly emergency room visits among those 12 to 17 for suicidal behaviors and drug overdoses, among other mental health problems. They found that by fall 2022, overall mental health emergencies had dropped 11 percent to a mean of nearly 6,500 a week. Attempted suicides and similar behaviors fell 12 percent, to a mean of more than 4,200 a week, compared to fall 2021. Similarly, teenagers had fewer hospital visits related to anxiety, depression, or attention disorders in 2022 than in 2021.

Emergencies related to eating disorders have risen among both boys and girls since the pandemic, but girls still vastly outnumber boys, with a mean of about 100 emergency room visits a week, compared to 14 for boys.

Also, while drug overdoses in general have fallen about 10 percent, to a mean of about 860 per week, those involving opioids jumped by 10 percent, or 16 per week, for girls, and 40 percent, or a mean of 23 a week, for boys between 2021 and 2022.

While teenagers have rebounded since the height of school disruptions, the CDC found girls still show higher rates of mental health emergencies than they had before the pandemic, and boys’ emergency rates are about the same.

“Poor mental and behavioral health remains a substantial public health problem, particularly among adolescent females,” researchers said. “Early identification and trauma-informed interventions, coupled with expanded evidence-based, comprehensive prevention efforts, are needed to support adolescents’ mental and behavioral health.”

The CDC credited improvements in mental health in part to schools’ widescale increases in mental health supports, from providing more access to therapists and social workers, to teacher training to support students with anxiety—even, in some cases, school building redesign.

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