New CDC analyzes released today shed additional light on the mental health of U.S. high school students during the COVID-19 pandemic, including a disproportionately high level of bullying that some students have experienced.
In 2021, more than a third (37%) of high school students reported experiencing poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 44% reported feeling consistently sad or hopeless in the past year, according to new data. The new analyzes also describe some of the dire challenges young people have faced during the pandemic:
- More than half (55%) reported experiencing emotional abuse from a parent or other adult in the home, including swearing, insulting, or humiliating the student.
- 11% experienced physical abuse by a parent or other adult in the home, including hitting, hitting, kicking, or physically harming the student.
- More than a quarter (29%) report that a parent or other adult in their household has lost a job.
Before the pandemic, mental health was deteriorating among high school students, according to previous CDC data.pdf icon
“These data reflect a cry for help,” said CDC Acting Principal Deputy Director Debra Khoury, MD, MPH. “The COVID-19 pandemic has created traumatic stressors that have the potential to further undermine students’ mental well-being. Our research shows that surrounding young people with the right supports can reverse these trends and help our young people now and in the future.”
Lesbian, gay and bisexual youth and young women report higher levels of poor mental health; emotional abuse by a parent or caregiver; and attempted suicide compared to their peers.
In addition, over a third (36%) of students said they experienced racism before or during the COVID-19 pandemic. The highest rates were reported among Asian students (64%) and black and mixed-race students (both 55%). The study could not determine the extent to which events during the pandemic contributed to the reported racism. However, experiencing racism among youth is associated with poorer mental health, academic achievement, and health risk behaviors across the lifespan.
School connectivity has provided critical protection for students during COVID-19
The findings also highlighted that feeling cared for, supported and belonging to a school – termed ‘school connectedness’ – had an important effect on students during severe disruption. Youth who feel connected to adults and peers at school are significantly less likely to report persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness than those who do not (35% vs. 53%); that they are seriously considering a suicide attempt (14% vs. 26%); or attempted suicide (6% vs. 12%). However, less than half (47%) of youth report feeling close to people at school during the pandemic.
“School connectedness is key to addressing youth adversity at any time—especially during times of severe disruption,” said Kathleen A. Ethier, MD, director of CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health. “Now more than ever, students need our support, whether it’s making sure their schools are inclusive and safe, or providing opportunities to get involved in their communities and be mentored by supportive adults.”
We all have a role to play in helping youth recover from the challenges of COVID-19
Youth with poor mental health may struggle with school and grades, decision-making and their health. Youth mental health problems are also often associated with other health and behavioral risks, such as increased risk of drug use, experiencing violence, and riskier sexual behavior.
Schools are critical partners in supporting the health and well-being of students. In addition to education, they provide opportunities for academic, social, mental health, and physical health services that can help protect against negative outcomes. However, schools are facing unprecedented disruption during the pandemic and cannot meet these complex challenges alone.
“In the face of disaster, support from schools, families and communities protects adolescents from potentially devastating consequences,” said Jonathan Mermin, MD, director of the National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STDs, and Tuberculosis Prevention, director of the CDC Center for monitoring and addressing school health. “This data tells us what works. So what will it take for our schools and communities to help youth meet the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond?”
This data, published as an MMWR Monitoring Supplement, come from the Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey (ABES), CDC’s first nationally representative survey of public and private school students to assess the well-being of US youth during the COVID-19 pandemic. Funded through the Coronavirus Relief, Assistance, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, CDC conducted the study in January-June 2021.
CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health on Mental Health Among Students: https://www.cdc.gov/healthyyouth/mental-health/index.htm.
For more information from CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STDs, and Tuberculosis Prevention, visit www.cdc.gov/nchhstp/newsroom