Drastically declining reading and math scores in the nation’s nine-year-olds since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic captured news headlines this fall. Simultaneously rising rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts in children and adolescents hold broad implications for both learning and well-being.
Three leading pediatric medical organizations have declared a national state of emergency in children’s mental health. “Rates of childhood mental health concerns and suicide rose steadily between 2010 and 2020, and by 2018 suicide was the second leading cause of death for youth ages 10-24,” the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association said in a joint statement in October 2021.
“The pandemic has intensified this crisis,” they noted. “Across the country, we have witnessed dramatic increases in Emergency Department visits for all mental health emergencies, including suspected suicide attempts.”
Children and adolescents worldwide struggle with growing mental health challenges, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy noted in his December 2021 advisory, Protecting Youth Mental Health. “Recent research covering 80,000 youth globally found that depressive and anxiety symptoms doubled during the pandemic, with 25% of youth experiencing depressive symptoms and 20% experiencing anxiety symptoms.”
During a session on “Coping with Student Mental Health Needs” at the Education Writers Association’s 75th National Seminar in Orlando, Florida, in July, speakers discussed findings from surveys of student mental health and expanded on their presentations in post-session interviews.
This blog’s author also spoke with Jamaal Abdul-Alim, the session moderator and education editor at The Conversation, and other leading education reporters to seek advice for fellow journalists.
Worrisome Trends: K-12 Students
Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, 70% of U.S. public schools taking part in the School Pulse Panel, an ongoing national study sponsored by the National Center for Education Statistics, have reported an increase in the percentage of K-12 students seeking mental health services at school, Sandra Chafouleas, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Connecticut’s Neag School of Education, said at the National Seminar session.
The School Pulse Panel has surveyed principals and other staff members in a random stratified sample of about 2,400 U.S. K-12 public schools each month since January 2022, Chafouleas said. The survey repeats some questions each month to track trends in the pandemic’s impact and adds new queries to explore additional topics.
Nearly all schools—96% —reported they provided mental health services for students in the 2021-22 school year, the School Pulse Panel said. Some 56% of schools said they can effectively provide services to students in need, including one-on-one counseling, case management, and referrals. Schools unable to meet students’ needs reported not having enough professional mental health staff members, access to licensed mental health professionals, and funding.
An estimated 4.1 million U.S. adolescents, 17% of the nation’s 12- to 17-year-old population, said they had had at least one episode of major depression in 2020, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.
Citing the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health during the National Seminar session, John MacPhee, CEO of The Jed Foundation, noted that 56% of these youth said they had not received treatment for depression. The nonprofit Jed Foundation focuses on promoting emotional health and preventing suicide in teens and young adults.
Worrisome Trends: College Students
Nearly 73% of more than 33,000 college students at 41 U.S. postsecondary institutions said they had experienced moderate to serious psychological distress since the pandemic began, Marty Swanbrow Becker, an associate professor of educational psychology and learning systems at Florida State University, said during the session.
This finding comes from the National College Health Assessment, conducted by the American College Health Association in fall 2021.
Some 52% of the students reported feeling higher levels of loneliness, Becker said. About 10% of students said they had intentionally injured themselves in the past year. Of those identifying themselves as gender non-conforming, 31% reported self-injuries.
Only 51% of students in this survey concurred with the assertion, “We are a campus where we look out for each other,” Becker said. Among 104,000 students at nearly 150 U.S. colleges and universities who responded to the Healthy Minds Study (HMS) in fall 2021, he noted, 68% reported feeling isolated from others some of the time or often.
Some 41% of these students experienced “any depression,” and 34% reported they had experienced “any anxiety.” Further, 81% of the students said emotional or mental difficulties had harmed their academic performance.
How Schools Can Foster Mental Health
Schools and teachers provide much more than academics, Chafouleas said. They play a central role in fostering children’s emotional development and well-being. They aim to help students learn to recognize emotions in themselves and others, demonstrate fairness and kindness, and develop a positive and optimistic outlook, she added.
In ordinary day-to-day in-person school settings, students have many opportunities to experience modeling and feedback on ways to interact with others, Chafouleas noted. Pandemic-related social disconnection drastically reduced these opportunities. Some young children have yet to acquire social skills, she said. Some haven’t learned alternatives to hitting and kicking.
Schools know what fourth graders’ reading and math skills should be and can work toward helping them make up their pandemic-related academic losses, Chafouleas said. The benchmarks for emotional behavior aren’t as clear.
Chafouleas and her colleagues developed their Feel Your Best Self program to help children aged 3-12 years improve ways of relating to others as they return to the classroom post-pandemic. The program represents a partnership between Chafouleas’ group, the Collaboratory on School and Child Health, and the Ballard Institute and Museum of Puppetry, the world’s only graduate program in puppetry, both at the University of Connecticut.
Feel Your Best Self includes 13 two- to five-minute videos that highlight simple strategies for self-calming, assessing feelings, and connecting with others that children can incorporate easily into daily routines. “One of my favorites is ‘Shake Out the Yuck,’” Chafouleas said. “It’s an aerobic and physiological tactic that kids, teachers, and parents find fun to do.”
Designed for use in classrooms, camps, child care programs and at home, all videos and instructional materials are free and available in English and Spanish.
Skills, such as those taught in the UConn program, often are grouped under the umbrella of social-emotional learning (SEL), a term that has become a flashpoint in some parts of the nation today. Critics allege SEL intrudes onto parental turf and aims to impart ideological and political values some parents may not share, potentially making some children feel bad about themselves
Nonetheless, parents across the political spectrum broadly support teaching SEL-related skills in schools, according to a 2021 survey of a nationally representative sample of 2000 parents conducted by the Fordham Institute, in collaboration with YouGov, a global public-opinion firm. Parents generally dislike the term “social and emotional learning,” however, the survey revealed. Parents ranked “life skills” highest on a list of alternative descriptors.
How Schools Can Help Prevent Suicide
Students at colleges and universities experience greater well-being when they feel connected, said Becker, who leads Florida State University’s College of Education Suicide Prevention Research Team. “It’s important for students to look out for each other,” he said. His research team includes graduate and undergraduate students.
Destigmatizing mental health help, Becker said, makes it easier for those who need help to pursue it. To facilitate that, schools can encourage students, faculty and others to recognize signs of distress in others in their communities, Becker said, and to reach out to those in need. That may involve asking hard questions, he said, such as “Are you thinking about suicide?,” and encouraging or even arranging help for those who need it.
Such help both improves and saves lives, said The Jed Foundation’s MacPhee. It also pays off economically, he noted, as it keeps students from dropping out of school and boosts their life-time earnings. The Foundation works with high schools and colleges to strengthen student mental health, combat substance misuse, and develop suicide prevention programs. Its website offers dozens of resources on topics such as “How to reduce stress by prioritizing and getting organized,” “Understanding self-injury,” and “How to handle anxiety around mass shootings and going back to school.”
Promote Suicide and Crisis Lifelines
In the U.S., anyone experiencing a mental health or substance use crisis; considering suicide, or worried about someone struggling with these issues can obtain help by calling or texting 988. It’s the new nationwide 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, available 24/7.
Launched in July 2022, the 988 Lifeline connects callers to trained counselors at more than 200 locally operated and funded crisis centers nationwide. The counselors provide phone-based support and connections to local resources. Approved by Congress in 2020, the 988 number aims to streamline services provided by the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which used a 10-digit number.
The Trevor Project, which aims to prevent suicide in lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and questioning youth, provides trained counselors 24/7 via its toll-free TrevorLifeline, Trevor Text, and Trevor Chat. Founded in 1998, The Trevor Project’s help center receives more than 200,000 crisis calls from LGBTQ youth annually, a Trevor Project spokesperson said, and an estimated 400,000 individuals aged 13-24 years currently use TrevorSpace, the organization’s safe space social networking site.
In its 2022 National Survey on LGBTQ Youth Mental Health, the Trevor Project found that 45% of LGBTQ youth had seriously considered suicide in the past year, and 14% had attempted it. Among transgender and nonbinary youth, nearly one in five had attempted suicide. LGBTQ youth of color reported higher rates of suicide attempts than their white peers.
Reporting on Suicide
“Don’t say someone ‘committed’ suicide. That implies suicide is a crime. Say ‘died of’ suicide, instead. Don’t describe the methods a person used. Copycat suicides are real,” John MacPhee of The Jed Foundation said during the National Seminar session..
Journalists can help prevent suicides, he noted. Reporting that dispels myths about suicide, provides suicide warning signs and risk factors, shows treatment works, and includes sources of help may act as a deterrent.
- Reporting on Suicide: These new guidelines on best practices and recommendations for reporting on suicide were developed by experts in suicide prevention, journalism, and mental health who reviewed more than 50 international studies of suicide contagion.
- The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia Journalism School offers a Suicide Reporting Toolkit and other resources for journalists.
Covering Student Mental Health
- Strive to go beyond increasing awareness of problems: Reporters need to delve into what school administrators and policymakers are doing to provide the resources that students need to cope with mental challenges that have arisen since the pandemic began, Jamaal Abdul-Alim, The Conversation’s education editor said in an interview.
”It’s important to see if various initiatives move the needle and improve outcomes,” he asserted. “When you’re talking about an intervention, you want to be sure it’s evidence-based.”
- Avoid jargon and taking sides: “Ordinary people don’t use terms [like] social-emotional learning, trauma-informed teaching, and culturally relevant pedagogy,” Abdul-Alim said.
“Don’t take sides on hot-button topics, such as critical race theory,” he advised. “Our job is to offer perspective.”
- Use social media to find sources: Kate Rix turned to social media after difficulties finding students to speak to while reporting for The Hechinger Report’s The Trauma Epidemic series, which earned her and two colleagues EWA’s 2021 National Award for Education Reporting in the News (Small Newsroom) category.
Rix found a student on Instagram after his school district wouldn’t provide his contact information. She previously saw the student interviewed on television. He was a high school class president whose date for a homecoming dance died later of an accidental drug overdose.
Facebook friends recommended other sources, such as parents who gave Rix permission to speak with their children. “Reporters have to respect a child’s age and the sensitivity of mental health topics,” she noted.
- Include all relevant voices: It’s important to include student, parent, and teacher voices in a report on student mental health, so readers can view the problem from different perspectives, Rix said. “That helps make the story three-dimensional.”
Rix also spoke with adults concerned about the well-being of young people and the lack of capacity to support them, both at the school district level and at national organizations. “People on the edges like legislators who may be trying to enact change,” she noted, often have helpful information to offer.
- Explore antecedents to today’s news: In the decade before the pandemic, mental health experts were seeing manifestations of serious mental health problems, including suicidal ideation and eating disorders, in increasingly younger children, former NPR education correspondent Anya Kamenetz noted in an interview.
The nation’s mental health services, including those in schools, remain inadequate. There’s a real gamut of problems here, Kamenetz said, that warrant reporters’ ongoing attention.