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Students' Mental Health Is Not Alright

Saying that our kids are suffering from the pandemic would be an understatement.

Kat j on Unsplash
Source: Kat j on Unsplash

Key Points:

  • A high proportion of high school and college students are at risk for general anxiety, social anxiety and PTSD, according to recent research.
  • Declines in youth mental health preceded the pandemic, but students are now dealing with stress, disengagement, headaches, eye strain and loneliness.
  • Mental health issues are linked with decreased mental capacities, which may affect academic success.

Saying that our children are suffering during the pandemic would be a gross understatement. Or as Dr. Harold Koplewicz, a child and adolescent psychiatrist and founder/president of Child Mind Institute, said, “During COVID, it became very important for us to look at how the kids are doing, and our kids are not all right ...” (Wigfall, 2020).

That conclusion is borne out by new data from the Center for Adolescent Research and Education (CARE), which seeks to increase favorable youth outcomes and reduce risk, and Total Brain, a mental health and brain performance self-monitoring and self-care platform.

The CARE/Total Brain study, which included more than 1,100 high school and college students who took the Total Brain assessment, found that 48% of high school and college students are at risk of general anxiety, 45% are at risk of social anxiety, and 39% are at risk of PTSD.

Interestingly, the risk of common mental health conditions is 19% to 41% higher for females than males.

Pandemic Strains Add to Students' Deteriorating Mental Health

Additionally, a recent research report from NBC News and Challenge Success takes a specific look at the different effects on students who take classes exclusively online and their peers who attend at least one day of in-person class.

Erin Einhorn of NBC News reports, “As debates rage across the country over whether schools should teach online or in person, students like Sean Vargas-Arcia have experienced the pros and cons of both” (Einhorn, 2021).

“I’m much happier in person,” said Sean, 16, a junior at Yonkers Middle High School in New York. As Covid-19 rates have fluctuated, he has gone back and forth between online classes and attending in person two days per week.

“It’s stressful worrying about contracting the coronavirus at school,” said Sean, who has health issues including epilepsy and a grandmother who lives with his family. But his online classes wear him down.

“When I’m at home, fully remote, it’s more like a sluggish feeling,” he said. “I’m usually feeling distressed and tired and I just don’t want anything to do with school anymore.”

The study, which surveyed 10,000 high school students in the fall of 2020, also found elevated levels of stress, disengagement, headaches, and eye strain.

Kids are also struggling socially (and emotionally) by spending little time with their peers in classrooms. In other words: They’re lonely.

But, a decline in youth mental health long preceded the pandemic. The National Alliance on Mental Illness reports the following (NAMI, 2021):

  • 1 in 6 U.S. youth aged 6-17 experience a mental health disorder each year
  • 50% of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14, and 75% by age 24
  • Suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death among people aged 10-34

Looking as far back as 2017, the National Center for Health Statistics of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2019 on the release of a 10-year study of kids and mental health. They found the following regarding suicide rates (Curtin and Heron, 2019):

  • After a stable period from 2000 to 2007, suicide rates for persons aged 10-24 increased from 2007 to 2017, increasing 56%.
  • The suicide rate for persons aged 10-14 declined from 2000 (1.5) to 2007 (0.9), and then nearly tripled from 2007 to 2017.

Mental Health Problems Affect Performance

Clearly, adolescent mental health is not alright. And deteriorating mental health is usually linked with a decline in cognitive capacities. To wit, the CARE/Total Brain study reveals the toll on those capacities. Expressed in percentile ranking, the standard average for any capacity is the 50th percentile ranking. However, the average percentile rank for students in this study fell well below the standard average.

  • Memory: 37th percentile rank (13 percentile points below standard average)
  • Focus: 37th percentile rank (13 percentile points below standard average)
  • Planning: 34th percentile rank (16 percentile points below standard average)

“Academic success is inextricably tied to brain capacities that are themselves directly affected by mental health risk,” noted Louis Gagnon, CEO, Total Brain. “High risk can severely impact student engagement, performance, and graduation rates. Investments in student mental health are critical to academic success and can result in economic benefits for educational institutions and society at large.”

Clemson University Associate Professor Barry Garst, Ph.D., a youth-development expert and a member of the National Advisory Board at CARE, says, “The importance of providing students with resources that strengthen their resilience and flexibility in the face of conflict or change has never been more apparent than now. The benefit of the Total Brain assessment used in this research cannot be underestimated. Students can benefit greatly from self-assessment and scientifically proven exercises designed to help them build on their cognitive strengths while also addressing deficit areas in need of development.”

Bottom line? While it’s really not only the lonely, the psychological fallout of having an entire population of students under extended periods of stress cannot be downplayed. We know that teens and young adults are particularly vulnerable to the mental health impacts of the pandemic. These findings indicate a strong need to offer self-monitoring and self-care tools to the student population. What is so unique about the Total Brain approach is that it looks at the relationship between common mental health conditions and actual brain capacities — a unique approach for youth facing an unprecedented mental health crisis.

References

Challenge Success. (2021). Kids under pressure. Challenge Success and NBC News. https://www.challengesuccess.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/CS-NBC-Stud… (22 Feb. 2021).

Curtin, S. and M. Heron. (2019). Death rates due to suicide and homicide among persons aged 10-24: United States, 2000-2017. NCHS Data Brief. No. 352. October 2019. National Center for Health Statistics. https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/databriefs/db352-h.pdf (22 Feb. 2021).

Einhorn, E. (2021). Remote students are most stressed than their peers in the classroom, study shows. NBC News. February 15, 2021. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/education/remote-students-are-more-stresse… (22 Feb. 2021).

NAMI. (2021). Mental health by the numbers. National Alliance on Mental Health. https://www.nami.org/mhstats (22 Feb. 2021).

Wigfall, C. (2020). ‘Our kids are not alright’: new report finds teens struggling due to school closure and isolation. Center of the American Experiment. November 20, 2020. https://www.americanexperiment.org/2020/11/new-report-finds-teens-strug… (22 Feb. 2021).

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