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Teens and Mental Health in the News: The NBC Report

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT

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It’s been a year.

The vaccines are here.

Public health officials, in collaboration with state, municipal, and community resources, are in the process of distributing doses to as many people in the U.S. as they can. They’re doing it as quickly as possible, under challenging circumstances.

Whether this means our kids will be back in school full-time later this spring, over the summer (for year-round districts), or in the fall, remains to be seen. It may surprise many of you to learn that in some school districts, students continued in-person school this entire time. That’s a fact. Mostly in rural areas, where infection rates did not spike until long after states like California and Washington and cities like Boston and Atlanta reported crisis-level numbers indicating uncontrolled community outbreak.

But that’s not the point of this article.

This article is about our high school students, and the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on their psychological and emotional health.

As we say above, it’s been a year. That means mental health and adolescent development experts had the time to gather and analyze data on the effect of the pandemic on our teens. A study published on February 15th by NBC News, in collaboration with the Stanford University Graduate School of Education, gives us one of our first high-quality, data-based assessments of the current mental health of our adolescent population.

The short version: our teens are stressed.

The Challenge Success/Stanford Survey of Adolescent Experiences

The study, called “Kids Under Pressure: A Look at Student Well-Being and Engagement During the Pandemic” offers a much-needed, unique perspective. The novel thing about this study is that the coronavirus effect was measurable. Here’s why: each year, the non-profit group Challenge Success surveys thousands of students nationwide to collect data on high school students. What’s unique about their survey is the topics the annual surveys cover.

In their own words:

“At Challenge Success, we believe that our society has become too focused on grades, test scores, and performance, leaving little time for kids to develop the necessary skills to become resilient, ethical, and motivated learners. We partner with schools, families, and communities to embrace a broad definition of success and to implement research-based strategies that promote student well-being and engagement with learning.”

The reason the Challenge Success survey gives us reliable, measurable data on the effect of the coronavirus pandemic on the mental health and wellbeing of our teens is threefold. First, researchers were able to compare answers to their standard questions about “student well-being and engagement” from their 2019 survey to answers to the same questions from their 2020 survey. Second, they modified the 2020 survey to include questions about specific issues related to remote learning and the pandemic. Third, the sample set, i.e. the number of students surveyed, is large enough to make statistical generalizations: it includes data from 75,000 students attending 86 high schools around the country.

The year’s survey included questions about the following topics:

  • Stress
  • Worry
  • Academic engagement
  • Belonging and connection at school
  • Parent expectations
  • Homework
  • Extracurricular activities

Parents, teachers, caregivers, and anyone involved in the life of a teenager can agree those are topics of significant interest.

Let’s look at the results.

Teen Well-Being, School Engagement, and School Relationships in 2020

The first set of numbers we’ll present is about levels of student stress. The survey asked students about their experience at school, and whether their experience was different in 2020 as compared to their experience in 2019.

Here’s what they said.

School Stress 2020: High School Students

  • 56% of students said their stress levels in 2020 increased, compared to their pre-pandemic stress levels in 2019.
    • 63% of females
    • 48% of males
    • 63% of Black and Hispanic/Latinx students
    • 55% of White students r
  • 59.2% of students reported increased worry about college
    • 67% of females
    • 50% of males

Those numbers are clear. A majority of students said they were more stressed about school in 2020 than in 2019: that’s an important insight that we need to consider. The numbers also tell us that females, Black, and Hispanic/Latinx students experienced greater increases in stress than males and White students.

Now let’s look at the percentage of students who identified the following specific aspects of school and life as a major source of stress.

Major Sources of Stress 2020: High School Students

  • Grades: 68%
  • Workload/Homework: 60.7%
  • Time Management: 49%
  • College/Future: 44.5%
  • Lack of play/social/relax time: 40.4%
  • Parental Expectations: 33.2%
  • Mental Health Issues: 31.5%
  • Friends and Cliques: 19.1%
  • Extracurricular activities: 11.5%

In this set of numbers, we want to pay attention to the responses about mental health issues. The percentage of students who reported mental health related stress increased by 6%, from 26% to 32%. In addition, 65% of students said they were not very confident in their ability to handle stress productively. That’s another important insight we need to consider: if stress levels increase without an equal increase in perceived ability to productively process stress, then our students are at increased risk of developing a broad range of stress-related mental and physical conditions.

We have two more sets of data to present: engagement with schoolwork and a sense of belonging/connection in school.

First, we’ll look at school engagement, which means the level of enthusiasm and commitment students bring to their schoolwork. We’ll present the numbers from 2019 and 2020.

School Engagement 2019-2020: High School Students

  • Disengaged:
    • 2019: 8%
    • 2020: 12%
  • Just Doing It:
    • 2019: 44%
    • 2020: 48%
  • Purposefully Engaged:
    • 2019: 32%
    • 2020: 28%
  • All-In on School:
    • 2019: 16%
    • 2020: 12%

There are no huge surprises there. The percentage of students going through the motions increased by around 4 percent, and the percentage of students fully committed to schoolwork decreased by around 4 percent.

Now, let’s look at our final set of numbers, which, like the questions about student engagement, are about things that most surveys high school students take skip over. These areas are what make the Challenge Success survey unique, and help us gauge the overall wellbeing of our teenagers.

Connection and Belonging 2020: High School Students

  • Sense of Belonging in School:
    • Decreased for 32%
    • Stayed the same for 59.4%
    • Increased for 8.3%
  • Strength of Peer Relationships:
    • Decreased for 47.1%
    • Stayed the same for 38.1%
    • Increased for 14.8%
  • Strength of Connection to Teachers:
    • Decreased for 50.0%
    • Stayed the same for 42.2%
    • Increased for 7.8%

The numbers to focus on here include the strength of connection/strength of relationships to peers and teachers: a significant number of students reported their teacher and peer relationships are weaker in 2020 than they were in 2019.

We need to talk about that.

Kids Under Pressure: Key Takeaways

Those last two question areas – strength of peer relationships and strength of connection to teachers – are significant when viewed in light of the reported increases in overall stress and worry among high school students. Parents, teachers, caregivers, and others who work with teenagers on a regular basis understand that peers and teachers play a large role in their lives.

Peers often function as a chosen family: teenagers confide in them, go to them for advice, go to them to have fun, be goofy, and generally act like teens in an unrestricted and unsupervised manner. Peer relationships help teens form their identity, create a personal moral and ethical code, and act as comrades on the journey from childhood to adulthood.

Teachers often function as the first real, present, and impactful role models teens have outside of their parents. In classes – whether academic, vocational, or artistic – teenagers expand their knowledge base, learn what they’re capable of, and meet and exceed challenges crafted and curated by committed teachers.

These relationships are key elements in adolescent development. And the data from this survey tells us that in 2020, the strength of those relationships waned for a large percentage of teenagers. That’s why the observation at the beginning of this article resonates: our teens are stressed.

Alone, that observation is important, but not earthshaking, because it’s also par for the course. Teens in any year will say they’re stressed. But the data indicates that in 2020 they were more stressed than in 2019, and their connection to two of their major sources of stress relief and identity building – peers and teachers – was less powerful in 2020 than in 2019, too.

What We Can Do

What all this means for adults is that we need to watch our teens closely. We need to keep an eye out for any signs of mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, or alcohol/substance use that may develop in response to stress and in the absence of peer and teacher support. Finally, we need to cultivate ways for our teens to connect and stay connected to their families, friends, and teachers. These foundational relationships can buffer the stress that challenged our teens in 2020, and help them resolve, restore, and recreate the sense of balance that may be missing from their lives in 2021.

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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