High school students experienced challenges with mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic including hopelessness, substance abuse, and suicidal thoughts or intentions. But those who felt close to people at school or who reported strong virtual connections with family and peers were less likely to report such concerns.
Those are among the key findings of a special national survey of high school students administered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in 2021. The results, released by the agency Thursday, are one of the largest sets of data about student experiences during the national health crisis.
The survey also captured students’ experiences with racism and disruptions to their home and school life, important factors for educators to address as they chart a course for recovery after the pandemic, public health officials said. That’s especially true because students who reported racism at school and LGBTQ students were more likely to report poor outcomes during the pandemic than their peers, said Kathleen Ethier, director of the CDC’s division of adolescent and school health.
“Although all students were impacted by the pandemic, it did not impact all students equally,” she told Education Week in an interview.
A broad picture of high school students’ lives during the pandemic
Thirty-seven percent of the survey’s 7,700 respondents said they had experienced poor mental health during the pandemic, and 31 percent said they had experienced poor mental health in the 30 days before the questionnaire, which was administered to waves of students between January and June 2021.
Forty-four percent of students said they had experienced “persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness” within the previous year, 20 percent had considered attempting suicide, and 9 percent of respondents said they had attempted suicide.
Because the questionnaire, called the Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey, was created specifically to be administered online to both in-person and remote students during the pandemic, researchers cautioned that it can’t be directly compared to other pre-pandemic surveys of high school students, which were administered by paper and pencil to a broader set of the student population.
But in a supplement, the report’s authors cited pre-COVID student mental health concerns tracked by the agency’s annual Youth Risk Behavior survey. Between 2009 and 2019, for example, the portion of respondents reporting persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness increased from 26 percent to 37 percent.
While it’s difficult to draw firm conclusions about “causality or directionality of the findings,” the authors said, the data is still valuable for school administrators and educators, who are spending an influx of federal COVID-19 aid on academic, social, and emotional recovery efforts.
Confronting racism and building belonging
While schools have reported difficulty with hiring counselors and tutors, the data suggest broader efforts aimed at building a sense of belonging in school may be useful ways to help students flourish.
Twenty-eight percent of survey respondents who reported that they felt close to people at school reported poor mental health, compared to 45 percent who did not report such close relationships. Students who reported feeling connected to others virtually were also less likely to report poor mental health—36 percent of respondents compared to 42 percent of their peers.
“We see how important schools are in mitigating the effects of the pandemic,” Ethier said.
In addition to targeted services, like counseling, schoolwide efforts that build community may be helpful in recovery from COVID-19 disruptions, she said. Research has found that mentoring, volunteering, and effective classroom management can help increase school connectedness.
But a sense of discrimination or unfair treatment correlates with a lack of connectedness, the survey suggests, confirming previous findings by researchers who’ve said giving students a feeling of belonging helps them overcome academic and emotional challenges at school.
Thirty-six percent of survey respondents reported that they had at some point been “treated badly or unfairly in school” because of their race or ethnicity, with their answers ranging on a frequency scale from having “ever” experienced such treatment to having “always” experienced it. Among racial groups, Black and Asian students were most likely to report experiences with racism at school.
And students who reported such discrimination were more likely to report poor mental health during the pandemic than those who hadn’t—38 percent compared to 24 percent. Similarly, students who reported any experience with racism at school were less likely to say they felt close to people at school and more likely to report difficulty with concentration.
That’s why schools’ efforts must center on meeting the needs of all students, including those from all racial backgrounds, genders, and sexual orientations, Ethier said. That could include targeted professional development for teachers and policies that specifically address bullying of LGBTQ students.
Young lives disrupted
The survey also provides a large data set that captures students’ life disruptions and adverse experiences in 2021, findings that could help guide immediate and long-term efforts to address the pandemic’s fallout, researchers wrote.
Among the findings:
- Twenty-nine percent of respondents reported short-term or long-term parental job loss during the pandemic.
- Twenty-two percent of students reported their own job loss.
- Two percent of respondents reported some form of homelessness, including sleeping in the home of a family or friend, in the 30 days before the survey.
- Over half of respondents, 55 percent, said their parent had sworn at them, insulted them, or put them down during the pandemic. Eleven percent reported that a parent had physically abused them at some point during the pandemic.
- Sixty-seven percent of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that doing schoolwork “was more difficult during the COVID-19 pandemic than before the pandemic started.”
Responses showed differences among demographic groups. Asian and Latino students experienced parental job loss at a higher rate. Black students were most likely to report physical abuse by a parent. And students who identified as gay, lesbian, or bisexual were more likely than their heterosexual peers to report emotional abuse by a parent and difficulty with school work.
Those findings may have implications for schools’ ongoing equity work and for cooperative efforts with community groups to address family concerns—like hunger and homelessness—that can be barriers to success in school, researchers wrote.
“Many student disruptions and adverse experiences in this report are interconnected with the social determinants of health,” the CDC report said. “Previous research shows that disparities based on race and ethnicity and sex existed among persons who experienced economic, food and nutrition, or housing insecurity before the pandemic, and these persons had a greater likelihood of experiencing these insecurities during the pandemic.”
Student drug and alcohol use during COVID-19
Thirty-two percent of high school students responding to the survey reported current use of a tobacco product, alcohol, or marijuana or current misuse of prescription opioids.
Among the 43 percent who said they had ever drunk alcohol, 30 percent agreed or strongly agreed they drank more alcohol during the pandemic.
Students who learned remotely at the time of the survey were less likely to report current use of alcohol, marijuana, and opioids than those learning in-person or in hybrid mode. That may be because they had less access to peers who helped them obtain those substances, researchers suggested.