story at a glance
- The pandemic has exacerbated several mental health problems among children and adolescents.
- School social workers are noticing students struggling with social interactions and processing emotions.
- Parents express concern about their children’s mental health in a new survey from the Pew Research Center.
A growing youth mental health crisis is raising concern among parents as children and teens continue to struggle individually as they return to school.
Young people’s mental health declined sharply in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, when schools were closed and most students were learning remotely. School administrators and caregivers were optimistic that the crisis could ease this year after most students return to classrooms during the 2021-2022 school year.
“It was hoped that after returning to settling in and learning in person for the first year that some things would have slowed down,” says Terrilyn Rivers-Cannon, who has been a school social worker for more than 20 years and President of the School Social Workers Association of Georgia.
But this does not seem to be happening. In the middle of the 2022-2023 school year, school social workers are finding that youth are still facing high levels of mental health challenges, and a new survey shows that many parents are Worried about anxiety and depression.
“Now we’re getting a true picture of what’s really happening or what happened,” Rivers-Cannon says.
She says many of the mental health challenges young people currently face are the result of historical trauma when they were in close proximity to others in their homes during lockdowns in the early days of the pandemic. Now that restrictions have been eased, she suggests that young people appear to be releasing their feelings arising from traumatic situations that they may have previously held inside, in a different way.
“We have a lot of students who have also had difficulty managing their emotions and are acting out,” says Lisa Ciappi of Effective School Solutions.
He added that some students are also struggling with forgetting how to interact with peers and meet face-to-face.
“The challenges seem to have escalated in intensity for a lot of students,” says Ciappi. “We are seeing a lot more students with a higher need for support.”
Research shows the crisis was a long time coming – but it has been supercharged
“The youth mental health crisis now affecting the country” has really been probably 15 years in the making, says Duncan Young, CEO of Effective School Solutions.
Research and statistics measuring young people’s mental health remained relatively stable until about 2009, Young says. After that, an inflection point marked the beginning of a steady decline of youth mental health. In recent years, that decline has been accompanied by a steady increase in suicide rates and emergency department visits among young people for psychiatric reasons.
Part of the reason for the decline in young people’s mental health, Young suggests, is the rise of technology and social media. Smartphone and social media use has been linked to increased mental distress, self-harm and suicidal ideation among young people.
And the decline, already in progress, has been supercharged during the pandemic.
“We have to take seriously the fact that many youth feel socially isolated and marginalized,” says Joshua Langberg, director of the Center for Youth Social Emotional Wellness at Rutgers University, in an email. “The COVID-19 pandemic was associated with significantly increased stress and social isolation for families, and they are two of the biggest drivers of mental health issues.”
The isolated effect of distance learning and other stressors, such as food insecurity worsened by children no longer having access to school meals, may have put a strain on young people’s mental health amid the pandemic.
Some children may also have experienced extreme adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) such as violence, abuse or neglect.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), ACEs have been linked to mental illness, among other negative health effects, in adolescence and adulthood. And research suggests their impact can be widespread: A recent study found that of more than 20,000 Florida teens surveyed they had at least one adverse childhood experience and nearly 23 percent said they had Experienced four or more.
many parents are concerned
Amid the ongoing crisis, more than three-quarters of parents are at least a little concerned about their children’s mental health, according to a report published Tuesday from the Pew Research Center.
The survey included 3,757 American parents with children under the age of 18. Next to bullying and kidnapping or abduction, mental health tops the list of parents’ concerns. Forty percent of respondents said they were extremely or very concerned about their children struggling with anxiety or depression, while another 36 percent said they were somewhat concerned.
This concern was most prevalent among White and Hispanic parents, said lead author on the report and research associate Rachel Minkin at the Pew Research Center in an email.
“White and Hispanic parents are more likely than Black and Asian parents to say their children may struggle with anxiety or depression, and Black and Hispanic parents are the most likely to say they want their children Extremely worried about getting shot or getting in trouble with the police,” she said.
Family, school, peers and doctors can provide some support
Mental health support for children begins at home with caregivers and parents. Langberg suggests that families can talk honestly about their stress over the past few years and honor the hard work everyone has put in.
“The increased stress is likely to have increased the strain on some important relationships. People were just surviving and getting by,” says Langberg. “Perhaps some negative communication patterns developed. Start doing small things to change those patterns.
One parent in the Pew survey said, “I didn’t have a safe space to express my feelings to feel understood. I try to have weekly conversations with my kids to check in on their feelings to see if they How are you. Even if they’ve had a good week, I’ve found it’s good to remind them that you’re there for them.”
Parents and school counselors should allow awareness to become a welcome idea, says Rivers-Cannon, and continually convey to youth that it’s okay not to be okay. “When the conversation about it comes up, it can’t be something that you let go by.”
Schools are also an important place for youth to receive mental health support and services. However, funding and staffing constraints make it difficult for schools to serve their student communities in this way.
With school staff often unable to provide needed support, students may be able to turn to their peers for less.
“The plus side is that what I’m hearing and seeing is that kids are engaging more with their classmates,” Rivers-Cannon says. “We have more peer groups connecting which is wonderful because it means they are building trust within each other.”
Another place for support is the doctor’s office.
In October 2022, the US Preventive Services Task Force recommended that children and adolescents ages 8 to 18 be screened for anxiety. The agency also recommends screening 12- to 18-year-olds for depression. Early detection can help children and teens get the care they need.
Jason Nagata, MD, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of California San Francisco, notes that a growing number of pediatricians are screening youth for ACEs.
“It is important that screening improves health outcomes for children and adolescents who experience ACEs,” he says. They also noted that “pediatricians should be aware that girls and youth of color experience the highest rates of ACEs.”
Beyond screening, doctors can share guidelines with caregivers and help direct them to additional sources of support, such as local mental health clinics or youth programming.
Ultimately, resources are needed that can be shared with families, the community, and stakeholders, because “if we are not joining together and networking together, we cannot serve the individuals who are going to be our future,” Rivers-Cannon says.