Then came COVID-19. Americans of all ages say the pandemic has ta ken a significant toll on their mental health, but the trend has been especially pronounced among young people.
The rate of children ages 11 through 17 who were screened last year for anxiety and depression was 9% higher than it was in 2019, according to a recent Mental Health America report. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows the number of children sent to emergency rooms for mental-health conditions skyrocketed between April and October of last year.
And while federal statistics for last year aren’t yet available, anecdotal evidence suggests a surge in teenagers being treated for suicidal ideation and attempts in hospitals – a phenomenon corroborated by various surveys.
“I’m incredibly distressed but not surprised,” said Jen Vorse Wilka, the president of YouthTruth, a nonprofit that polls the country’s young people in an effort to help schools better respond to their needs.
For high schoolers, the biggest stressors have been the sense of disconnect from friends and loved ones and difficulties focusing on school or work, according to survey data by YouthTruth.
But the mental-health challenges won’t magically disappear once students trickle back into school buildings. In some cases, the existing challenges will be compounded by new ones – the pressure to achieve after a year of widely reported learning losses, the anxiety of returning to structured days and settings, and the fear of being in close proximity with others.
“Feeling depressed, stressed or anxious is now the No. 1 obstacle to students’ learning,” Wilka said.
Schools are starting to recognize this, with many districts ramping up funding for mental-health services and offering professional development for educators wondering how to best respond to the crisis.
“You cannot ignore that this past year happened,” said Benjamin Heim, a student in Lenox, Massachusetts. “The effects that COVID had on students won’t go away.”
A few months into the pandemic, Heim said isolation away friends drove him into a paralyzing anxiety. “I felt like I was in the bottom of a pit that I could not get out no matter what I did,” he said.
He couldn’t find joy in the simple pleasures that used to pick up his spirits – funny YouTube videos, for example, and short nature walks in nature. And as much as he wanted to talk things out, he struggled to muster up the courage – “to have the initiative” – to reach out to friends.