Story at a glance
- The pandemic exacerbated many mental health problems among children and teens.
- School social workers are noticing students struggling with social interactions and processing emotions.
- Parents expressed concerns about their children’s mental health in a new survey from the Pew Research Center.
A growing youth mental health crisis is fueling concern among parents as children and teens continue to struggle after returning to school in person.
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 the crisis might ease this year after most students returned to classrooms during the 2021-2022 school year.
“It was the hope that after settling for the first year and returning to in person learning that some things would have slowed down,” says Terriyln Rivers-Cannon, who has been a school social worker for more than 20 years and is the president of the School Social Workers Association of Georgia.
But that doesn’t appear to be the case. Midway through the 2022-2023 school year, school social workers are finding that youth are still experiencing a high level of mental health challenges, and a new survey shows that many parents are worried about anxiety and depression in their children.
“Now we’re getting a true picture of what is actually occurring or has occurred,” says Rivers-Cannon.
Many of the mental health challenges young people are currently facing are a result of historical trauma from when they were in close proximity with others in their households during lockdowns early in the pandemic, she says. Now that restrictions have eased, she explains young people appear to be releasing their feelings arising from those traumatic situations, which they may have previously been holding inside them, in a different way.
“We have a lot of students that have also had difficulty managing their emotions and are acting out,” says Lisa Ciappi of Effective School Solutions.
Some students are also struggling with forgetting how to interact with peers and socialize face to face, she noted.
“The acuity of the challenges seem to have increased for a lot of students,” says Ciappi. “We’re seeing a lot more students with a higher need of support.”
Research shows the crisis was a long time coming — but it’s become supercharged
The youth mental health crisis now impacting the country “has actually been probably 15 years in the making,” says Duncan Young, who is CEO of Effective School Solutions.
Research and statistics measuring young people’s mental health by a variety of different metrics remained relatively stable until about 2009, says Young. After that, an inflection point marked the beginning of a steady degradation of youth mental health. In recent years, that decline has also been accompanied by a consistent rise in suicide rates and emergency department visits among young people for psychiatric reasons.
The reason for the downturn in young people’s mental health, Young suggests, is the rise of technology and social media. Smartphone and social media use is linked to increased mental distress, self-harm and suicidal ideation among youth.
And the decline, already in progress, has become supercharged during the pandemic.
“We have to take seriously the fact that many youth feel socially isolated and marginalized,” says Joshua Langberg, the 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 those happen to be two of the biggest drivers of mental health.”
The isolating effect of remote learning and other stressors, like 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 have also suffered heightened adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), such as violence, abuse or neglect.
ACEs have been linked to mental illness, among other negative health impacts, in adolescence and adulthood, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And research suggests their impact may be widespread: A recent study found that more than two-thirds of 20,000 Florida adolescents surveyed said they had at least one adverse childhood experience and about 23 percent said they experienced four or more.
Many parents are worried
Amid the ongoing crisis, more than three-quarters of parents are at least somewhat worried about their children’s mental health, according to a report published Tuesday from the Pew Research Center.
The survey included 3,757 U.S. parents with children under 18 years old. Mental health topped the list of the parents’ concerns, ahead of bullying and kidnapping or abduction. Forty percent of respondents said they were extremely or very worried about their children struggling with anxiety or depression, while another 36 percent said they were somewhat worried.
That concern was most prevalent among White and Hispanic parents, noted 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 worry their children might struggle with anxiety or depression, and Black and Hispanic parents are most likely to say they are extremely or very worried about their children getting shot or getting in trouble with the police,” she said.
Families, schools, peers and doctors can offer some support
Mental health support for children starts at home with caregivers and parents. Families can talk honestly about the stress they’ve been under the last few years and honor the hard work everyone did to get through it, suggests Langberg.
“Increased stress likely placed tension on some important relationships. People were just surviving and getting by,” says Langberg. “Maybe some negative communication patterns developed. Start doing little things to change those patterns.”
One parent in the Pew survey said, “I didn’t have a safe place to express my emotions of feeling understood. I try to have weekly talks with my kids to check in on their emotions to see how they are. Even if they had a good week, I have found it is still good to remind them you are there for them.”
Parents and school counselors should allow awareness to be a welcoming thought and continuously instill in youth that it is OK not to be OK, says Rivers-Cannon. “When conversations come up about it, it can’t be something that you allow to lie dormant.”
Schools are also a crucial space for youth to receive mental health support and services. However, funding and staff shortages make it difficult for schools to serve their student communities in that way.
With school staff often unable to provide needed support, students may at least be able to turn to their peers.
“The plus side is that what I’m hearing and noticing is that children are connecting more with their classmates,” says Rivers-Cannon. “We have more peer groups that are connecting which is wonderful because that means that they’re building up trust within one another.”
Another space for support is the doctor’s office.
In October 2022, the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended that children and adolescents ages 8 to 18 get screened for anxiety. The agency also recommends screening 12 to 18 year olds for depression. Early screenings can help children and adolescents get the care they need.
Jason Nagata, who is assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of California San Francisco, notes that a growing number of pediatricians are screening young people for ACEs.
“It is important that screening leads to improved health outcomes for children and adolescents who have experienced ACEs,” he says. He also notes that “pediatricians should be aware that girls and youth of color experience the highest rates of ACEs.”
Beyond screenings, 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’re not connecting together and networking together, we cannot serve the individuals who are going to be our future,” says Rivers-Cannon.