5 things we learned about student mental health in 2022

As variants of COVID-19 continued to spread in 2022, pandemic-related school closings have all but disappeared and most districts have lifted mitigation rules such as social distancing.
But as external disruptions to schooling have weakened, educators are facing a new epidemic of child and adolescent mental health problems. Researchers are just beginning to understand the long-term effects of the pandemic on students’ minds and brains.

Among the findings this year:

1. We’re back to school, but not back to normal.

About 1 in 4 children and adolescents in 11 countries, including the United States, have experienced severe “stress,” during the pandemic. Depression and anxiety have been shown to be the most common mental health problems, but behavior and attention problems have also increased, especially in younger children.

The pandemic’s massive disruption may even have prematurely aged teenage brains by three to four years in the early months, similarly, severe trauma can alter children’s brain development, according to a long-term neurological study.

2. The coronavirus itself puts children at greater risk.

Pandemic-related social isolation, economic instability and family stress contributed to the burden of school stress, but contracting COVID-19 alone nearly tripled children’s risk of new mental health problems, according to a study by the Department of Health and Human Services US resources Services.

In more than 3.3 million children nationwide under the age of 17, researchers found that more than a third of children who tested positive for COVID-19 were diagnosed with a new mental disorder within 30 days. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety disorders, and trauma or stress disorders were the most common diagnoses.

3. Educators see that screen time worsens behavior and learning problems

The nonprofit organization Common Sense Media, which monitors children’s use of screens and technology, reports that daily screen time has increased sharply since the pandemic. Teens ages 8-12 already use digital devices for more than five and a half hours a day, and teens now spend nearly eight hours and 40 minutes a day in front of screens—not counting school technology.

In a survey last spring, more than 80 percent of educators told the EdWeek Research Center that they’ve seen higher doses of screen time translate into more behavior problems and learning challenges in the classroom for their students.

A separate study this month also found that hours of playing video games and watching algorithm-based video playlists, such as on YouTube, increased the risk of developing OCD in pre-teens.

4. Alleviating students’ mental health problems can reduce absenteeism

Almost half of schools saw a worsening of student absenteeism in the past yearand 70 percent of schools have not recovered their pre-pandemic attendance levels.

Anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems can account for some chronic absenteeism, especially among students with disabilities. Some districts are exploring wellness centers, day schools and other interventions to ease student anxiety and get kids back in the classroom.

5. Schools must prevent and respond to student suicides – even in the elementary grades

According to the latest data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The risk is even higher for children of color.

Florida Children’s Advocates found record numbers of children held for involuntary mental health examinations, particularly for self-harm.

Researchers say that depression and suicidal thoughts can look different in younger students than in adolescents, and less than a third of children who kill themselves have had a previous mental health diagnosis. This has led some districts to introduce mental health screening and suicide prevention programs in the early grades.

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