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Pandemic School Closures Impacted Teens' Mental Health. Here’s What Can Help

Teens experiencing mental health issues.

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Key Takeaways

  • A series of studies from the CDC demonstrated how the COVID-19 pandemic negatively affected the mental health of teenagers.
  • The pandemic led to disruptions in the school and home life of students.
  • Parents, teachers, and other community members need to provide robust support as young people adjust.

During a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, teens and young adults are more likely to experience feelings of isolation, emotional or financial stresses, anxiety, and depression.

A new series of studies from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) surveyed more than 7,000 students in grades 9 to 12 to understand just how much the pandemic affected their mental health.

According to the report, school closures and online-only instruction negatively impacted teenage students. Some of the effects included:

  • Having more difficulty completing their school work
  • Experiencing persistent feelings of hopelessness
  • Prevalent substance use

The results highlight the extent of the pandemic's impact on students and underline the need for additional support from adults and community members during this time.

How the Pandemic Affected Students’ Mental Health

The COVID-19 pandemic has been stressful for teens in many different ways, experts said.

“Children’s home, school, social, and community lives were completely disrupted,” Ariana Hoet, PhD, clinical director of On Our Sleeves and pediatric psychologist at the Nationwide Children's Hospital, told Verywell. “Many families, including the children, worried about physical health and financial instability—including housing and food insecurity—due to the effects of COVID.”

Since the pandemic began, 28.5% of students experienced parental job loss, while 22.3% lost their own jobs. Almost a quarter of the survey respondents (23.8%) also went hungry because there was not enough food in their homes. Some students also experienced homelessness.

According to the survey, the financial and social stressors of the pandemic may be considered risk factors for increased child abuse. Many students reported experiencing either emotional (55.1%) or physical abuse (11.3%) from a parent. These results highlight the need for school and community initiatives to help address disruptions and adverse experiences that students have faced during the pandemic.

“During the teenage years, peers take on an increasingly prominent role in children’s lives both in terms of time spent with peers and relying on peers for intimacy and support,” Karen Rudolph, PhD, faculty researcher at the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology and psychology professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, told Verywell. “Social distancing during the pandemic significantly interfered with this typical process of gaining autonomy from the family and engaging in activities and relationships with peers.”

Students who felt close to other people at school were found to have a lower prevalence of poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic (28.4%) compared with those who did not (45.2%). This trend was similar among the students who were connected with family, friends, or other groups through virtual means compared to those who were not.

Concerns about contracting COVID-19 and disruptions in sleep schedules and sleep quality can also increase stress and contribute to the development of various mental health problems, Rudolph said.

What This Means For You

The COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted teenage students’ mental health in a variety of ways, including by disrupting school and home life and increasing financial insecurity. If you are the caregiver or educator of a teenager, it is crucial that you support their mental health. You can find additional resources here.

The Need for Support

Even before COVID-19, teenagers were experiencing an increase in mental health problems, such as anxiety and depression, which worsened during the pandemic.

Disparities based on race, ethnicity, and sex were also present among people who experienced economic, food, or housing insecurity before, or even during, the pandemic.

“The CDC report highlights the disruption and difficult experiences many children faced during the pandemic, especially children from the LGBTQ+ and racially or ethnically diverse communities,” Hoet said. “The report notes the importance of urgent action to address the concerns adolescents shared in the survey and discusses protective factors for children.”

Problems at home or in school, mental health challenges caused by isolation, and other routine disruptions caused by the pandemic can increase the risk for a substance use disorder. About 31.6% of high school students reported the use of tobacco products, alcohol, or marijuana, or misused prescription opioids. Early treatment is necessary to prevent serious health consequences or death.

“The increase in problems observed across the pandemic highlights the need for resources and attention directed at identifying at-risk youth,” Rudolph said. “For example, systematic screening and additional counseling resources in the schools, as well as public health initiatives raising awareness along with additional resources for families to cope with pandemic-related distress in teens.”

Schools are now opening up, allowing teens to gradually return to “normal” and interact with other people more often. However, only time will tell whether returning to a relatively typical life will result in improvements in their mental health, Rudolph said.

“There is some evidence suggesting that once individuals experience mental health problems such as depression, they become more vulnerable to future episodes, so there is some reason to believe that higher rates of mental health difficulties could continue,” she added. “On the other hand, some teens may have learned strategies for coping with stress that help them to become more resilient in the future.”

Providing early intervention and adequate mental health support to students may help them bounce back, which can be done by scaling up existing mental health services in schools and health systems.

“Caregivers can help their teens grow healthy social relationships with friends, family, and community members to help with navigating stressors,” Hoet said. “The CDC report discusses certain recommendations to increase school connectedness, including creating inclusive and safe school environments through staff trainings and ensuring policies are implemented in an equitable way.”

The report suggests enhancing the use of prescription drug monitoring programs and providing behavior counseling from healthcare providers to reduce substance use. Schoolwide programs focused on social and emotional learning, ways for staff to improve classroom management, and strategies to foster relationships between students, their families, and school staff may also foster school connectedness and promote positive school climates.

“We have to continue to put children’s mental health at the forefront of our priorities,” Hoet said.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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6 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Rico A, Brener ND, Thornton J, et al. Overview and methodology of the Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey — United States, January–June 2021. MMWR Suppl. 2022;71(Suppl-3):1–7. doi:10.15585/mmwr.su7103a1

  3. Krause KH, Verlenden JV, Szucs LE, et al. Disruptions to school and home life among high school students during the COVID-19 pandemic — Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey, United States, January–June 2021. MMWR Suppl. 2022;71(Suppl-3):28–34. doi:10.15585/mmwr.su7103a5

  4. Jones SE, Ethier KA, Hertz M, et al. Mental health, suicidality, and connectedness among high school students during the COVID-19 pandemic — Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey, United States, January–June 2021. MMWR Suppl. 2022;71(Suppl-3):16–21. doi:10.15585/mmwr.su7103a3

  5. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Supporting young people’s mental health through the COVID-19 crisis.

  6. Brener ND, Bohm MK, Jones CM, et al. Use of tobacco products, alcohol, and other substances among high school students during the COVID-19 pandemic — Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey, United States, January–June 2021. MMWR Suppl. 2022;71(Suppl-3):8–15. doi:10.15585/mmwr.su7103a2