Student Well-Being

Students Say Depression, Anxiety Are Holding Them Back. But They Can’t Find Help at School

By Arianna Prothero — October 24, 2022 3 min read
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Middle and high school students say overwhelmingly that depression, stress, and anxiety are the biggest barriers to their learning, according to a new report released by YouthTruth, a nonprofit that surveys K-12 students and families for school districts.

At the same time, they also report struggling to get the support they need—in the form of school counselors and programs—from their schools.

Only about a fifth of secondary students said they had access to a school counselor, psychologist, or therapist when they felt upset or had a problem. And when asked if their school has services or programs to help them when they are having problems, fewer than half of middle school students and only about a third of high school students agreed that they did.

Less than half of middle and high school students say that they have an adult at their school they can talk to when they feel upset or stressed. “There are not enough counselors and mental health services,” one 7th grade student responded in the survey. “We have 1,000 kids and only two counselors.”

The report is based on a YouthTruth survey of nearly 223,000 students from 845 YouthTruth partner schools across 20 states.

Fifty percent of middle school students and 56 percent of high school students identified feeling depressed, stressed, or anxious as the biggest obstacle to learning. Distractions at home and family responsibilities were cited as the second largest obstacle, with 35 percent of middle school students and 37 percent of high school students saying that was the case.

Girls and transgender students are hurting more than boys

Gender plays a big role in how much depression, stress, and anxiety are getting in the way of academics. Significantly larger percentages of female, transgender, and non-binary students cite these emotions as an issue compared with boys.

In middle school, 36 percent of boys say that depression, anxiety, and stress, impedes their learning, compared with 58 percent of girls, 83 percent of transgender students, and 85 percent of non-binary students.

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Image of student managing obstacles.
Kasia Bogdańska for Education Week

The breakdown is similar for high schoolers: 40 percent of boys, 67 percent of girls, 81 percent of transgender students, and 86 percent of non-binary students cite depression, anxiety, and stress as barriers to learning. Seventy-nine percent of gay/lesbian and bisexual students report these feelings as a barrier to learning, compared with 39 percent of heterosexual students.

Most alarmingly, much larger shares of LGBTQ students report having seriously considered suicide in the 12 months prior to taking the survey, compared with other students.

Thirty-two percent of LGBTQ middle and high schoolers said they had seriously contemplated suicide, compared with 7 percent of their non-LGBTQ middle school peers and 8 percent of their non-LGBTQ high school peers.

Among transgender students, 48 percent of middle schoolers and 41 percent of high schoolers say they seriously considered suicide.

Students struggle to find help

Overall, students are not satisfied with their schools’ mental health services and programs. Just 41 percent of middle school students agree that their school has services or programs to help them when they are upset, stressed, or having problems, and only 36 percent of high school students say the same. Fewer LGBTQ students reported being happy with their school mental health services.

“They could make more of an effort to reach out to students, make it more accessible and clear on what they can do for students, because sometimes it’s hard for students to reach out on their own,” one 10th grader responded in the survey.

When it comes to students who say they spoke with a school counselor, therapist, or psychologist, significant differences between genders and sexuality persist.

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Fifteen percent of both middle and high school boys say they spoke with a school-based mental health professional in the 12 months prior to taking the survey, which was administered in the 2021-22 school year. In middle school, 26 percent of girls and 44 percent of non-binary students said they spoke with a school counselor, therapist, psychologist. Among high schoolers, the percentages were 30 percent of girls and 49 percent of non-binary students.

Among LGBTQ students, 46 percent of middle school students and 40 percent of high school students said they spoke with a school-based mental health professional, compared with 18 and 17 percent of non-LGBTQ students, respectively.

When it comes to feeling like there is an adult—any adult, not just a mental health professional—at their school they can talk to when they’re feeling stressed or having problems, only 42 percent of middle school students and 40 percent of high school students indicate they have that support.

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