by Jayne O’Donnell and Richard Willing
Children and teens visited emergency rooms at rates 25 to 31% higher due to serious mental health disorders in the first two years of the pandemic. Graduation rates, which hit an all-time high in 2019, were back trending downward during the pandemic. And academic achievement saw such big drops in many parts of the country that the term almost seems like an oxymoron.
Think the pandemic’s over? Think again.
The long tail effect of Covid-19 on students will be felt for years to come, experts say (will add link), and many believe the learning loss and mental health impact of social isolation may never be reversed or solved. Like so much else about the pandemic, the disease, along with the government’s response to it, laid bare the racial, ethnic and socioeconomic disparities that have long bedeviled the nation’s health. Suicide rates during 2020 increased only slightly among youth, but made significant jumps among young people of color. For Hispanic girls and women aged 10 to 24 in the same age group, the rate increased by 40%, while Hispanic boys and men experienced a 20% increase. Black girls and women died by suicide 30% more often in 2020 over 2019, while the rate of suicide by Black boys and
men in that age range leapt 23%. Among Asian girls and women ages 15-24 also had a nearly 30% increase.
The students most likely to attend already low-performing schools in under-resourced communities were also the ones most at risk of catching the virus. When the white-collar world was safely sheltering in place, their parents were the most apt to have service industry or other jobs that required them to commute to public-facing positions. Addiction, mental health disorders, domestic violence and child abuse cut across all races and classes, but it can be much more difficult for children and their parents to access services – and to overcome the stigma associated in some communities with seeking help.
“I fear that many communities – and therefore, many children – will not have access to the necessary resources and support systems to effectively address children’s mental health crises if and when they arise,” wrote Ben Miller, a psychologist and president of the Well Being Trust, in his column, Mental, on Substack. “The absolute worst reaction we collectively can have, as parents and policymakers, is inaction.”
Assessment numbers, though incomplete, draw an unhappy picture. Data released in July 2021 by not-for-profit assessment group NWEA compared the progress of
students in third through eighth grade in academic year 2020-2021, the first full year of Covid-19 protocols, to similar students from before the pandemic. By the end of that school year, the typical student was behind where he or she would normally be — three to six percentile points behind in reading and eight to 12 points behind in math, with younger students faring worse than their older peers. In elementary grades, Black, Latino, and Native American students saw much steeper declines than white and Asian students. Students in high-poverty schools also saw bigger drops than those in more affluent schools.
For some students, such as Washington, D.C. high school student Tamar Coon, the social isolation imposed by the pandemic had a positive impact. She could focus better, felt less anxious and stressed, she reported in a first-person essay she did with Youthcast Media Group that was published on the educational site, Chalkbeat. “At first, I was stressed because I was totally confused about how to navigate the new technology and platforms like Zoom and Canvas that we used for remote learning,” Coon wrote. “Eventually, though, we found a way to make it work. My mother talked with me about my feelings and eventually created study stations around the house so that my sister and I rotated through different rooms as the day went on. It was almost like our school transitions (between classes).”
The evidence suggests, though, that adapters like Tamar are outnumbered by students whose mental health as well as classroom achievements have been seriously impacted.
Nevertheless, experts such as Miller suggest that Covid-19 has an unexpected upside – today, in the pandemic’s wake, the mental health struggles of school age children are receiving unprecedented government attention. In January, President Biden made student mental health a focus of his State of the Union address. He followed up in March, releasing a Fiscal Year 2023 proposed budget that includes $111 million for mental health professionals in schools, up from $16 million last year, and $56 million for support school-based mental health services grants, up from $11 million last year.
In December 2021, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy issued an official advisory on youth mental health that pointed the way forward. “Even before the pandemic, an alarming number of young people struggled with feelings of helplessness, depression, and thoughts of suicide — and rates have increased over the past decade,” the Surgeon General said.
“The future wellbeing of our country depends on how we support and invest in the next generation. Especially in this moment, as we work to protect the health of Americans in the face of a new variant, we also need to focus on how we can emerge stronger on the other side.”
O’Donnell, who was USA TODAY’s health policy reporter until April 2013, is founder and CEO of Youthcast Media Group (YMG). Willing, a former legal, law enforcement and intelligence reporter for USA TODAY, is a YMG volunteer editor and instructor. He is also O’Donnell’s husband.