At the end of my eighth-grade year, my grades were in the dumps, and so was my mental health. As and Bs in my classes turned into a C-average, and I struggled to accept support from my parents and my school. That was three months into the COVID-19 pandemic, and I was far from alone. The isolation during the pandemic significantly worsened high school students’ mental health in the U.S., and there were not enough resources to deal with it.
“It’s as though we were trying to build a bridge across a canyon but didn’t have all the materials to finish the project. Then, the pandemic hit, making the canyon wider and the materials even more in demand,” said Ray Merenstein, the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Colorado, in a Healthline interview.
With institutions all over the country — and now the president — declaring the pandemic over, it is especially important for parents, school administrators and elected officials to be aware of the struggles students faced in order to help them transition back to normal life.
In a survey conducted by the CDC of almost 8,000 high school students, nearly 45% of American high school students reported persistent feelings of sadness of hopelessness between 2020 and 2021. Almost 20% reported seriously considering suicide, and 9% had attempted suicide.
Normally, students might rely on support systems at school to help them with their mental health. In an interview with Healthline, Dr. Asha Patton-Smith, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Kaiser Permanente in Virginia, said students lost support systems that “often provided an outlet to cope with issues they may be facing and helped to identify students in need of additional support.” Without school, parents — who were already stretched thin from financial burdens and their own mental health — were often forced to become their children’s entire support system. This dynamic was often unmanageable for families, and it hasn’t gotten much easier since then.
That is to say nothing of the effect on low-income families, who were disproportionately impacted by COVID. The pandemic exacerbated long-standing issues with support and access for these families, and watching that stress affect their communities took a toll on students. “Our children are like sponges. If we are experiencing distress related to the collective traumas of COVID-19, they are likely to be impacted as well,” said Dr. Anjali Ferguson, a clinical psychologist at Virginia Commonwealth University, in an interview with Healthline.
So, has the bridge has been built?
No. But here’s how we can build a better one:
- Parents can support their children by taking care of their own mental health and having honest conversations with their children about their struggles.
- School administrators can advocate for more funding and mental health professionals to combat the lack of mental health resources in schools. Teachers can also help their students by checking in with them and being available to talk.
- Elected officials can provide aid to low-income families to fight long-standing socioeconomic challenges exacerbated by the pandemic. They can promote ways to provide aid to these families, such as supplying stimulus to families in need and making healthcare more accessible.
ThreeSixty Fall News Team students wrote op-ed stories, inspired by the #360YouthVoiceChallenge, which is inspired by youth.