The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kids’ mental health is getting worse. But that predated the pandemic.

Students at Burton High School in San Francisco rush out of the school buildings at the end of the day in October 2021. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
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New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention paint a stark picture of high school students’ mental health during the coronavirus pandemic: As of the first half of 2021, 44 percent report persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness, nearly 20 percent report seriously considering suicide in the previous 12 months, and 9 percent report having attempted suicide. All those numbers have increased.

It’s pretty evident that we’re seeing what many advocates have labeled a mental health crisis among children. But how much that stems from the pandemic, specifically, is less clear.

In their reports on the new data, both the CDC and some media outlets play up the pandemic’s role.

“Emerging data suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively affected the mental health of many children and adolescents,” begins the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, which focuses on the new Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey.

Various headlines have also made this connection. “More High Schoolers Felt Hopeless Or Suicidal During Pandemic As Mental Health Crisis Intensified, CDC Finds,” Forbes says. “Depression, suicidal thoughts prevalent in high school students during pandemic -U.S. study,” Reuters says.

There is no question the pandemic added stressors to Americans’ lives, including children’s. One would expect that to show up in these data.

But, as The Post’s Moriah Balingit notes, the trend lines suggest that this crisis very much predated the pandemic. Although we’re seeing new highs in these numbers, all three have been rising over the decade before the pandemic. And some key behaviors didn’t accelerate during the pandemic.

The percentage of high-schoolers who said they seriously considered suicide over the previous year went from 13.8 percent in 2009 to 18.8 percent in 2019 — an average increase of 1 percentage point every two years. The rise during the two years between the 2019 and 2021 surveys: 1.1 percentage points.

Reported suicide attempts are similar. The 9 percent of high-schoolers who say they attempted suicide over the previous year is similar to the 2019 number, 8.9 percent. And except for a momentary decrease in the 2017 survey, it has risen with every successive survey. In fact, the increases were greater between 2009 (6.3 percent) and 2015 (8.6 percent) than they are today.

The big exception to these largely steady increases comes in the percentage who say they’ve experienced persistent sadness and hopelessness. Not only has this risen since 2009, but it has also accelerated in recent years.

The increase of 7.5 points from 2019 to 2021 is the largest in any two-year span. But this, too, appeared to be accelerating before that period. It flattened at 29.9 percent in 2015 before rising 1.6 points from 2015 to 2017 and then 5.2 points between 2017 and 2019 — by far the biggest increase, until the period we’re talking about now.

None of this is to deny that the pandemic had some negative impact. But when it comes to confronting the problem, it’s important to isolate the driving factors. The data suggest that these problems were already getting significantly worse before the pandemic — and it would follow that these problems might not be alleviated much — if at all — as the pandemic’s presence fades in our lives. (This also bears on claims attributing declines in mental health to things like mask mandates.)

The new data follow on previously released data that showed the feared rise in suicides (for all ages) didn’t materialize during 2020. In fact, suicide rates dropped slightly. As STAT News’s Craig Bryan surmised, that could be because people pull together during a time of crisis. The new data would seem to bolster that theory: Feelings of sadness and hopelessness increased, both in percentage and in the rate of change — but the most serious expressions of such hopelessness didn’t accelerate.

Another factor to consider is what might have happened in the period after these data were collected. This survey is from early 2021, and it covers feelings and behavior from the previous 12 months — i.e., a period mostly spanning 2020 and some early months of 2021. This period covered the bulk of school closures and other strict mitigation measures. But the prolonged nature of the pandemic could also be a factor in future data.

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