Wellbeing and Mental Health

Mental health: How COVID-19 affected students in the US

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Many US high school students struggled with poor mental health during the pandemic. Image: Unsplash/Elisa Ventur

Katherine Schaeffer
Writer, Pew Research Center
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  • About 37% of students at public and private US high schools said their mental health was not good most or all of the time during the pandemic, according to a new study.
  • The prevalence of such issues was higher among lesbian, gay or bisexual (LGB) students, at around 64%.
  • LGB students were also the most likely to seek treatment, with 19% receiving help during the pandemic via telemedicine.
  • Public health experts had called attention to teen mental health even before the coronavirus outbreak, with a 2015 survey finding that LGB teens were at greater risk of depression than their heterosexual peers.

Many high school students have reported experiencing mental health challenges during the coronavirus outbreak, according to recently published survey findings from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). High school students who are gay, lesbian or bisexual, as well as girls, were especially likely to say their mental health has suffered during the pandemic.

Overall, 37% of students at public and private high schools reported that their mental health was not good most or all of the time during the pandemic, according to the CDC’s Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey, which was fielded from January to June 2021. In the survey, “poor mental health” includes stress, anxiety and depression. About three-in-ten high school students (31%) said they experienced poor mental health most or all of the time in the 30 days before the survey. In addition, 44% said that, in the previous 12 months, they felt sad or hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks in a row such that they stopped doing some usual activities. (Not all of the survey questions asked specifically about mental health during the pandemic.)

% of high school students who said...
Almost double the percentage of girls said their mental health was not good during the pandemic. Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

High school students who are gay, lesbian or bisexual reported higher rates of mental health stresses than their heterosexual (straight) peers. The share of LGB high schoolers who said their mental health was not good most of the time or always during the pandemic was more than double that of heterosexual students (64% vs. 30%). More than half of LGB students (55%) said they experienced poor mental health at least most of the time in the 30 days before the survey, while 26% of heterosexual teens said the same. And about three-quarters of LGB high schoolers (76%) said they felt sad or hopeless almost daily for at least two weeks such that they stopped doing some of their usual activities, compared with 37% of heterosexual students.

There were also differences by gender. About half of high school girls (49%) said their mental health was not good most of the time or always during the COVID-19 outbreak – roughly double the share of boys who said this (24%). And roughly four-in-ten girls (42%) reported feeling this way in the 30 days before the survey; 20% of boys said the same. About six-in-ten high school girls (57%) reported that at some point in the 12 months before taking the survey (in the first half of 2021) they felt sad or hopeless almost every day for at least two weeks in a row such that they stopped doing some usual activities, compared with 31% of high school boys who said this.

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LGB high schoolers were also more likely than their heterosexual peers to have sought mental health care – including treatment or counseling for alcohol or drug use – via telemedicine during the COVID-19 pandemic. Around one-in-five LGB students (19%) said they received treatment this way at some point during the pandemic, compared with 6% of heterosexual students. Girls were more likely than boys to have received mental health care through telemedicine (10% vs. 7%, respectively).

Pandemic-related disruptions to schooling, socializing and family life have created a situation that the U.S. surgeon general has described as a “youth mental health crisis,” with high rates of teens experiencing distress. But public health experts had called attention to teen mental health even before the coronavirus outbreak. For instance, a separate CDC survey conducted in 2015 found that LGB teens were at greater risk of depression than their heterosexual peers. And a Pew Research Center analysis of pre-pandemic data from the National Survey for Drug Use and Health showed teenage girls were more likely than their male peers to report recent experiences with depression, as well as to receive treatment for it.

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