Poor mental health among American teens exacerbated by negative experiences during Covid-19 pandemic, survey finds


Poor adolescent mental health in the United States was a concern before the Covid-19 pandemic, and major disruptions to school and social life since the start of 2020 have only made matters worse.

A new study from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that most adolescents have experienced negative events during the Covid-19 pandemic – and these experiences were linked to a higher prevalence of poor mental health and suicide attempts.

Nearly three-quarters of high school students in the United States reported having had at least one negative childhood experience in 2021, such as physical abuse, emotional abuse, food insecurity, or losing a job from a parent during the Covid-19 pandemic. Also included are electronic bullying, dating violence and sexual violence.

Teens who experienced one or two adverse events were more than twice as likely to report poor mental health and nearly six times more likely to report a recent suicide attempt compared to those who experienced no adverse events.

And the effects accumulate. About 1 in 13 teenagers (8%) reported having experienced four or more adverse events during the Covid-19 pandemic. For these students, poor mental health was four times more common and suicide attempts were 25 times more common than for those who had no adverse events.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has revealed the extent and severity of the mental health crisis on racial and ethnic minorities, sexual and gender minorities, and marginalized youth,” US Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy wrote in a recent public health report. “Experiences of trauma and marginalization, among other factors, may also put these young people at increased risk for mental health problems later in life.”

The new CDC study was based on responses from more than 4,000 high school students to the 2021 survey of adolescent behaviors and experiences. It does not consider all factors affecting adolescent mental health or suicidal behaviors and does not assess lifetime exposure to specific childhood adverse events included.

But another CDC study released this year found there was a significant increase in the number of high school students reporting lingering feelings of sadness or hopelessness, contemplating suicide, or attempting suicide in the last decade – and they got even worse during the pandemic.

“Young people are in crisis,” Kathleen Ethier, director of the CDC’s Division of Adolescent and School Health, said in March.

“These data and others like it show us that young people and their families have been under incredible levels of stress during the pandemic. Our data reveals flaws and unveils a significant layer of information about the extreme disruptions some young people have experienced during the pandemic.

Overall, emotional abuse had the strongest association with poor mental health and suicide attempts, according to new data from the CDC.

“For more than a decade, suicide has been the second or third leading cause of death among adolescents aged 14 to 18,” the researchers write. “This analysis highlights the continued and urgent need to address the adversity experienced before and during the pandemic in order to mitigate its impact on mental and behavioral health.”

Strategies include stronger economic support for families and connecting youth and parents to community and school resources, they said.

“As devastating as these statistics are, the real tragedy is that we have not responded to them adequately,” Murthy wrote.

“We need to come together collectively to make sure young people, especially those who are marginalized, understand that struggling with their mental health doesn’t mean they’re broken or they’ve done something wrong. We need to actively engage young people and their families in conversations about mental health and reinforce that mental health issues are real, common and treatable.

As part of the U.S. bailout, the Biden administration has invested $5 billion in mental health and addictions programs through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, with billions more on offer in the future budgets.

A significant shift came this summer, with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline transitioning to a three-digit dialing code: 988. Early data suggests success, with calls jumping 45% in the first month from the same period a year earlier.

Tim Jansen, general manager of Community Crisis Services Inc., which runs a 988 call center in Maryland, said most of the increase in volume he’s seen was in chat and texting.

“With young people, that’s how they reach out,” he said.

The approach to adolescent and youth mental health is nuanced and should be different from how adults are treated, he said. But above all, it is essential to emphasize that these crises can affect anyone.

“The awareness is huge,” Jansen said.

Poor mental health among American teens exacerbated by negative experiences during Covid-19 pandemic, survey finds

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