adolescent male seen from the profile with light shed on his faceShare on Pinterest
New data from the CDC illuminate the pandemic’s effect on teenagers’ mental health. Sofia Guarisco/EyeEm/Getty Images
  • Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, teens’ mental well-being had been declining.
  • New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describe pressures brought on by COVID-19 that make an adolescent’s life even more difficult, including whole-family stress.
  • Disruptions have affected schools’ abilities to provide teens with feelings of connectedness.

Even before the arrival of COVID-19, in 2019, an average of nearly 36.7% of high school students reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, according to the CDC. For girls, the number was higher, 46.6%.

In the case of lesbian, gay, or bisexual adolescents, the number goes up to 66.3%. The overall average represents a 40% increase in such feelings over the last 10 years.

New CDC data released at the end of March 2022 reveals that the mental health of teens had declined further during the pandemic. More than a third (37%) of high school students said they have experienced poor mental health.

The new data comes from a January to June 2021 survey of high-school-age students asked to describe their behaviors and experiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The percentage of teens reporting feelings of sadness and hopelessness rose to 44.2%.

Dr. Lisa Coyne, senior clinical consultant at the Child and Adolescent OCD Institute at Maclean Hospital in Belmont, MA, speaks about this critical developmental stage in Maclean Hospital’s podcast.

“They’re at this developmental period where they are going to seek autonomy and independence, and that’s also a scary thing sometimes. In addition to that, their whole world […], all of our worlds have been thrown into disarray, but especially for them, they have a story about what the teen years are supposed to be like. That story is getting rewritten in real-time.”

During the period covered in the CDC survey, 19.9% reported having seriously considered attempting suicide. Nine percent reported having attempted it.

CDC Acting Principal Deputy Director Dr. Debra Houry, summarizes:

“These data echo a cry for help. The COVID-19 pandemic has created traumatic stressors that have the potential to further erode students’ mental well-being. Our research shows that surrounding youth with the proper support can reverse these trends and help our youth now and in the future.”

– Dr. Houry

The survey finds a greater level of anxiety at home for all family members. Twenty-nine percent reported that a parent or other adult in the home lost their job.

Fifty-five percent of survey participants reported having experienced emotional abuse by a parent or other adult at home.

Physical abuse from a parent or other adults in the home — including hitting, kicking, beating, or other physical attacks — was reported by 11% of teens.

More than a third (36%) of teens reported they had been confronted with racist behavior before or during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Though the survey does not report the types of experience encountered, 64% of Asian teens said they had encountered racism, as did 55% of Black teens and 54% of multiracial teens.

“Student perceptions of racism were associated with poor mental health; difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions; and a lack of connection with persons at school during the COVID-19 pandemic,” notes the CDC report.

“School connectedness is a key to addressing youth adversities at all times, especially during times of severe disruptions,” says Dr. Kathleen A. Ethier, Director of CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health.

The survey found that when teens felt connected to other students and adults at their school, they were less likely to report feeling sad or hopeless: 35% vs. 53%. They were also less likely to have considered suicide, 14% vs. 26%, or to have attempted it, 6% to 12%.

Less than half, 47%, of students reported feeling close to others at school.

Normally, schools provide mental health, physical health, and social services, as well as opportunities for positive reinforcement through academic achievement. During the pandemic, however, schools have also faced disruptions, including closures, staff shortages and resignations, and safety concerns.

Says Dr. Ethier, “Students need our support now more than ever, whether by making sure that their schools are inclusive and safe or by providing opportunities to engage in their communities and be mentored by supportive adults.”

The CDC’s Dr. Jonathan Mermin notes the value of concerted efforts among all adults:

“In the face of adversity, support from schools, families, and communities protects adolescents from potentially devastating consequences.”

Dr. Archana Basu, research scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, speaking on Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child podcast, also notes:

“[O]pen communication really helps to understand what children are observing and experiencing, and can help them not be alone in their worries. I would say that would be the number one goal, to help children recognize what they’re feeling, validate those emotions, and for them to feel that they are not alone in this experience.”