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Data: What We Know About Student Mental Health and the Pandemic

By Sarah D. Sparks — March 31, 2021 3 min read
Young adult holding up a lot of stress and pressure.
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It’s been a rough year.

Since the pandemic began, children and adolescents have higher rates of anxiety, depression, and stress, and even more specific issues such as addictive internet behaviors.

“I’ve never had so many referrals than in the last six months. … Normally it’s two or three a month and now it’s maybe two a week,” said Celeste Birkhofer, a licensed clinical psychologist at Stanford Medical School who works with children’s mental health issues. “I’m booked. I try to help send them to other colleagues and they’re booked, too. It’s challenging, especially challenging for a family that’s feeling like they’re in a bit of a crisis.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that from April through October of last year, the proportion of children between the ages of 5 and 11 visiting an emergency department because of a mental health crisis climbed 24 percent compared to that same time period in 2019. Among 12- to 17-year-olds, the number increased by 31 percent.

And that increase took place in a virus-laden year during which many people were hesitant to seek medical attention.

The effects of the pandemic on students are likely to be felt for years to come, experts say.

“The issue is that there can be a very long delay. It can be someone reacts to an event that happened a year or two or 10 years ago with a kind of trauma-related response or depression or suicide,” said Sara Gorman, the research and knowledge director for the JED Foundation, a national nonprofit that works with high schools and colleges on student mental health issues. “We obviously won’t know what the full impact of this is for many years, which is one of the reasons why it’s important for schools to be prepared to deal with this in a very comprehensive and long-term way.”

In a nationally representative survey of more than 2,000 parents and nearly 900 teenagers this fall, the JED Foundationfound that fundamental fears about the pandemic—how long it will last, whether the student or their family will get ill—cause more anxiety for teenagers than keeping up on their academics or getting ready for college. That suggests helping students learn to cope with the pandemic will be critical to keeping them focused on school.

EdWeek survey highlights disparities

In a separate new nationally representative survey, the EdWeek Research Center asked both educators and students in grades 9 through 12 to talk about the mental health challenges they’ve faced and supports they’ve received during the pandemic.

The survey also highlights disparities in how the pandemic has affected high school students. A wide majority of all students reported they are experiencing more problems now than they did in January 2020, before the pandemic began, but 77 percent of Black and Latinx students reported more struggles, at least 9 percentage points higher than the percentage of white or Asian students who said the same. Low-income and LGBTQ students were also significantly more likely to report experiencing more problems in the wake of the pandemic.

While nearly 1 in 4 white students are back to full-time in-person classes, it’s closer to 1 in 10 Black, Latinx, and Asian American students who are attending in person full time. By contrast, 64 percent or more of students of color are still learning entirely in remote classes, compared to only 41 percent of white students.

That can make a big difference in how easily students feel they can get support when they are struggling mentally and emotionally. Only 64 percent of high school students who were in full-time remote classes reported there was “at least one adult at school to talk to” if they are “feeling upset, stressed, or having problems”—9 percentage points lower than students attending hybrid schooling, and 20 percentage points lower than students back in regular in-person classes. Students, particularly low-income students, were also significantly less likely to report that their school offered mental health programs like counseling than their principals did, and they were more likely to think mental health services were no longer available after the pandemic.

The question of resources remains huge and uncertain, however.

Thefederal COVID-19 relief packagesigned into law March 11 includes grants to support youth suicide prevention and child trauma interventions, but it does not provide direct funding for schools for student mental health. There has been some effort by Democrats in the U.S. House of Representatives to authorize grants to school districts through the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, but no similar bill yet in the Senate, and it’s uncertain how successful the effort will be now that the stimulus package has been completed.

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Coverage of whole-child approaches to learning is supported in part by a grant from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, at www.chanzuckerberg.com. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the March 31, 2021 edition of Education Week as What We Know About Student Mental Health and the Pandemic


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