Teenager and mother hug in front of stone wall

The following column also appeared in the Home News Tribune.

The purpose of this month’s column is to bring focus to mental health issues affecting youth that parents and caregivers need to be aware of, so they know where to turn for help if needed.

Let’s start with some basics: Mental health includes our emotional, psychological and social wellbeing. It affects how we think, feel and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood to adolescence to adulthood. We all experience emotional ups and downs from time to time.

Mental health conditions go beyond these emotional reactions and become something longer lasting. They are medical conditions, not the result of personal weakness, lack of character or poor upbringing. With proper treatment, people can realize their full potential, cope with the stresses of life, work productively and meaningfully contribute to their community. Without mental health, we cannot be fully healthy.

Of great importance to parents and caregivers is the new focus given to the mental health of high school students during the COVID-19 pandemic, including a disproportionate level of threats that some students experienced. According to new data, in 2021, more than a third (37%) of high school students reported they experienced poor mental health during the pandemic, and 44% reported they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year. The new analyses also describe some of the severe challenges youth encountered during the pandemic:

  • More than half (55%) reported they experienced emotional abuse by a parent or other adult in the home, including swearing at, insulting or putting down the student.
  • 11% experienced physical abuse by a parent or other adult in the home, including hitting, beating, kicking or physically hurting the student.
  • More than a quarter (29%) reported a parent or other adult in their home lost a job.

Before the pandemic, mental health was getting worse among high school students. Recent findings seem to indicate that the above data is an obvious cry for help. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the pandemic has created traumatic stressors that have the potential to further erode students’ mental wellbeing. Our research shows that surrounding youth with the proper support can reverse these trends and help our youth now and in the future.

Lesbian, gay and bisexual youth and female youth reported greater levels of poor mental health; emotional abuse by a parent or caregiver; and having attempted suicide than their counterparts.

In addition, over a third (36%) of students said they experienced racism before or during the pandemic. The highest levels were reported among Asian students (64%) and Black students and students of multiple races (both 55%). The survey cannot determine the extent to which events during the pandemic contributed to reported racism. However, experiences of racism among youth have been linked to poor mental health, academic performance and lifelong health risk behaviors.

Findings also highlight that a sense of being cared for, supported and belonging at school — called “school connectedness” — had an important effect on students during a time of severe disruption. Youth who felt connected to adults and peers at school were significantly less likely than those who did not to report persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness (35% vs. 53%); that they seriously considered attempting suicide (14% vs. 26%); or attempted suicide (6% vs. 12%). However, fewer than half (47%) of youth reported feeling close to people at school during the pandemic.

School connectedness is a key to addressing youth adversities at all times – especially during times of severe disruptions. Students need our support now more than ever, whether by making sure that their schools are inclusive and safe or by providing opportunities to engage in their communities and be mentored by supportive adults. Obviously, we all have a role to play to help our youth recover from challenges during COVID-19

Youth with poor mental health may struggle with school and grades, decision making and their health. Mental health problems in youth are also often associated with other health and behavioral risks such as increased risk of drug use, experiencing violence and higher risk sexual behaviors. Schools are crucial partners in supporting the health and wellbeing of students. In addition to education, they provide opportunities for academic, social, mental health and physical health services that can help protect against negative outcomes. Schools are facing unprecedented disruptions during the pandemic, however, and cannot address these complex challenges alone.

Here are some resources parents and caregivers can turn to for assistance:

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