A greater proportion of U.S. high schoolers reported feeling persistently hopeless or contemplating suicide during the Covid-19 pandemic, which has exacerbated an already growing mental health crisis among youth, according to new data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The proportion of high schoolers experiencing sadness or hopelessness that interfered with usual activities spiked from 36.7% in 2019, prior to the pandemic, to 44.2% in 2021, according to the CDC’s first nationally representative survey of high schoolers’ wellbeing since the pandemic started, published Thursday.
Non-straight students reported the highest percentage of mental health struggles, with 75.7% of lesbian, gay and bisexual students reporting sadness or hopelessness, compared to 68.7% of “other or questioning” students and 36.7% of heterosexual students, mirroring historic trends that have shown LGBT youth to be at greater risk of mental health difficulties.
The survey found female students were more than twice as likely to attempt suicide than male students, reflecting generally higher rates of self-harm among girls and young women, with overall rates of serious contemplation of suicide climbing from 18.8% in 2019 to 19.9% in 2021 and rates of attempted suicide increasing slightly from 8.9% in 2019 to 9% in 2021.
These numbers represent a dramatic leap from 2009, when 26.1% of students reported persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness, 13.8% reported seriously considering suicide and 6.3% reported attempting suicide.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, 66.6% of students have found it harder to complete schoolwork, an issue that was strongly associated with emotional abuse by a parent, with a parent losing their job and with food insecurity—and which disproportionately affected lesbian, gay and bisexual students, 74.4% of whom reported schoolwork difficulty, and American Indian or Alaska Native students, 72.4% of whom reported schoolwork difficulty.
The study included data from 7,705 online questionnaires filled out by students in grades 9 to 12 at 128 U.S. public and private schools from January to June 2021.
The Covid-19 pandemic had a “devastating” effect on mental health problems that were already widespread by 2019, exacerbated by popular media that undermine youth’s feelings of self-worth by telling them they are not attractive, popular or wealthy enough, said Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy in a December 7 special advisory. Though it can be difficult to identify singular causes for mental health difficulties, Murthy recommended mitigating strain on students by safely reopening schools, reducing child poverty and growing access to inexpensive and high-quality mental healthcare. This crisis is not limited to the U.S.—a 2021 JAMA Pediatrics analysis of 29 studies concluded that the worldwide prevalence of anxiety and depression among youth doubled during the pandemic, with girls most affected by anxiety and older children most affected by depression, though results sometimes varied dramatically from study to study.
6,627. That’s about how many people age 10 to 24 died by suicide in 2020, according to the National Center for Health Statistics.
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