Students’ Mental Health and the Long Shadows of the Pandemic

The pandemic left virtually no part of society untouched. Beyond the death toll, COVID-19 interrupted everyday routines across the globe, with devastating emotional, economic, and psychological consequences.

In the U.S., school-age children were among those hardest hit by these changes. Though the full extent of the damage COVID-19 inflicted on the population won’t be known for decades, recent research has begun to pull back the curtain and reveal the unfortunate truth.

Initial stress responses

A study published in the National Library of Medicine in late 2020 found high rates of anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic symptoms among children and adolescents. The authors noted that children processed stress differently based on developmental stages, but overall, the impact was similar. Removed from their regular routines and tossed into the uncertainty of 2020, children’s mental health suffered.

The comprehensive study highlighted the effects of pandemic-driven school closures on this segment of the population. Nutrition, physical activity, and social development were all areas of concern in addition to students’ mental health.

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One year in

In the fall of 2021, many students across the country went back to in-person school. While this came as a relief to many — parents, students, and teachers alike — the shadows of lockdown were still palpable.

Pew Research chronicled many of the lingering effects of school closures and pandemic stress in an article published in late 2021. The grief, depression, isolation, anxiety, and pent-up emotions of the last 18 months followed students back to the classroom.

Symptoms bubbled up in fits of crying, disruptive behavior, bullying, and violence. The CDC reported a sharp rise in emergency department visits for suspected suicide attempts among people aged 12-25 in 2020, a trend which continued into 2021.

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Opening up about mental health

In 2021, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and the Children’s Hospital Association joined together to declare a national emergency in child and adolescent mental health stemming from the pandemic.

A second year of pandemic schooling has seen many students adjusting to a new normal. The emotional impact of COVID-19, however, much like the virus itself, has not disappeared. Addressing the needs of this group is a vital task for parents, educators, healthcare professionals, and behavioral health specialists.

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“Nearly every child in the country is suffering to some degree from the psychological effects of the pandemic,” said Sharon Hoover, co-director of the University of Maryland-based National Center for School Mental Health. “That’s why schools need to invest now in the mental health and well-being of our kids in a broad and comprehensive way. Not just for children with learning disabilities and diagnosed mental health conditions, but for all students.”