Growing up during a global pandemic isn’t easy. Teens faced unprecedented disruptions to their lives. New analysis confirms that COVID-19 had troubling mental-health effects in particular on high school students.
During the pandemic, teens endured:
- School closures
- Social isolation
- Parental or personal job loss
- Reduced access to health care and inadequate insurance coverage
- Economic, food and housing insecurity
- Increased emotional and physical abuse by a parent
- Worsening health disparities
More than 1 in 3 high school students experienced poor mental health during the pandemic. About 44% of students reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless, and almost 20% said they seriously considered suicide. The analysis, released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is based on data from a nationally representative survey of high school students during the first half of 2021.
The research found that specific groups of teens were more affected. Some were:
- Lesbian, gay and bisexual high school students reported persistently feeling sad or hopeless 75% of the time, compared with 37% of heterosexual students. About 26% also reported attempting suicide in the past 12 months, compared with 5% of heterosexual students.
- Researchers said was reported by 64% of Asian American students and more than 50% of both Black and multiracial students. For comparison, the research found approximately of all students reported being treated badly or unfairly in school due to their race or ethnicity in their lifetime.
Advice for parents of teens
Feeling sad, anxious and angry are normal during the teen years. However, serious problems can occur when these are constant or overwhelming.
Research shows specific actions reduced the prevalence of poor mental health in teens during the pandemic. These included feeling close to persons at school and being virtually connected with others.
As the COVID-19 pandemic lingers, adults can help teens in several ways:
Communicate. Ask about their feelings and let them know you are there to listen or help.
Encourage healthy behaviors. Remind them to take care of the basics such as exercising, sleeping well and reducing screen time.
Be a good example. Adults should model healthy behaviors by taking care of their own mental and physical health.
Know when to get help. Sometimes health care professionals are needed to screen and treat mental health problems. Professional counseling may be necessary in some instances, such as when grieving the loss of a loved one to COVID-19.
Signs of stress in teens
Here are some common warning signs of distress in teens.
Mood and behavior changes: Loss of interest in activities previously enjoyed; ongoing irritability; feelings of hopelessness or rage; and frequent conflicts
Sleep patterns: Difficulty falling or staying asleep or sleeping too much
Anxieties about food or their bodies: Changes in appetite, weight or eating patterns; appearance changes, such as lack of basic hygiene
Academic problems: Decreased interest in schoolwork or worsening concentration
Increase in unhealthy choices: Using drugs, drinking alcohol or other risk-taking behaviors
Comments about death or suicide should be taken seriously. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline offers immediate help at 800-273-8255 or suicidepreventionlifeline.org/chat.