Thursday, January 12, 2023

The COVID Pandemic and Youth Mental Health: Know the Facts

By Sam Piha 


Young people have proven to be especially vulnerable to mental health issues related to the COVID-19 pandemic. School closures, having to learn remotely, and isolating from friends due to physical distancing have been sources of stress and loneliness. While COVID learning loss in math and reading are of high concern, research about how students are doing mentally and emotionally since the coronavirus pandemic began indicates they are not doing well. 

We are still learning about how the pandemic has impacted young people’s mental health. It is important that youth workers and afterschool leaders are aware of the facts. Below we cite some of what we know about mental health and the impact of the COVID pandemic. NOTE: It is important that we not over pathologize young people's mental health, but remember to identify and tap into their assets. 

Obstacles To Learning
In a recent survey of youth (222,837 students at 845 schools across 20 states) reported that “…depression, stress, and anxiety are the biggest barriers to their learning. Teachers have also noted that dealing with student behavioral and mental health issues has been the biggest barrier to addressing unfinished learning.” - Arianna Prothero, ED Week

Know The Signs to Look For
Youth workers are not trained mental health experts. They do not have the training to diagnose mental health problems, however it is important to know the signs and symptoms to look out for. Below we cite a list of symptoms to look out for, originally published by Mental Health America.

“Symptoms that happen across multiple conditions:

  • Problems with concentration, memory, or ability to think clearly
  • Changes in appetite
  • Feeling sad, empty, hopeless, or worthless
  • Loss of interest in things that they used to enjoy
  • Excessive worry
  • Irritability or restlessness
  • Changes in sleep
  • Angry outbursts
  • Not wanting to be around people or take part in activities

Other things to look out for:

  • Hearing or seeing things that other people don’t
  • Extreme panic
  • Onset of new behaviors or rituals that are repeated
  • Mood swings or frequent shifts in energy
  • Changes in how they dress –if your child is wearing long pants and sleeves in hot weather, or hats all of a sudden, they could be hiding signs of self-injury like cutting or hair pulling.”

Risk Factors
We know that all youth who suffered as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic are at risk for mental health issues. However, not all youth are at the same level of risk. We cite some risk factors that youth workers should be aware of. According to the U.S. Surgeon General’s Advisory on Protecting Youth Mental Health, these are the risk factors contributing to youth mental health symptoms during the pandemic: 

  • Having mental health challenges before the pandemic 
  • Living in an urban area or an area with more severe COVID-19 outbreaks
  • Having parents or caregivers who were frontline workers
  • Having parents or caregivers at elevated risk of burnout (for example, due to parenting demands) 
  • Being worried about COVID-19
  • Experiencing disruptions in routine, such as not seeing friends or going to school in person
  • Experiencing more adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) such as abuse, neglect, community violence, and discrimination
  • Experiencing more financial instability, food shortages, or housing instability 
  • Experiencing trauma, such as losing a family member or caregiver to COVID-19

(Note: Not a comprehensive list of risk factors)

Who Are Most at Risk?
Recent studies are showing that at highest risk are youth in foster care, and youth in poverty.  And LGBTQ+ youth.  

Foster Care: “Young people placed in foster care are already dealing with a higher level of uncertainty than other young people. Placement in foster care can be disruptive and traumatizing, requiring enormous adjustments. Adding the upheaval caused by the pandemic can increase the feelings of instability for those in foster care.”National Library of Medicine

Urban Poverty: “The current mental health system is failing to meet the extensive needs of children living in urban poverty. After school programs, whose mission includes children's socialization, peer relations, and adaptive functioning, are uniquely positioned to support and promote children's healthy development.” – National Library of Medicine


LGBTQ+ Youth
LGBTQ+ youth are at higher risk for experiences leading to learning obstacles, bullying, and higher rates of depression, stress, anxiety, suicidal thinking and behavior. To raise awareness, we cite some findings from Youth Truth: Emotional and Mental Health.

On Obstacles to Learning:

“Sexual orientation matters when considering obstacles to learning, particularly for middle school students. At the middle-school level, gay or lesbian students (79 percent) and bisexual students (79 percent) report at more than double the percentage of their heterosexual classmates (39 percent) that depression, stress, and anxiety impede their learning.” 

Source: Youth Truth: Emotional and Mental Health

On Bullying:

“Over a quarter of our youngest secondary students identify bullying as a top five obstacle to learning… For gender non-binary and LGBTQ+ youth, bullying is a formidable weight that adds to their overall obstacle- to-learning load.

The only high school group to report at a significantly larger percentage than the overall (8 percent) that bullying is an obstacle to learning are non- binary students (17 percent). And at the middle-school level the only two groups to report that bullying is an obstacle to learning at a significantly higher rate than the overall (19 percent) are LGBTQ+ students (27 percent) and non- binary students (34 percent).” 

On Suicidality:

“There is no significant difference in the percentage of youth reporting that they have considered suicide in the previous year by grade level or by race; however, there are alarming differences by gender identity and LGBTQ+ status. 

A full 32 percent of LGBTQ+ middle school students report that they have considered suicide, four and half times higher that their non-LGBTQ+ peers (7 percent). And this pattern holds in high school where again 32 percent of LGBTQ+ students report that they have seriously considered suicide compared to their peers (8 percent).” 

Source: Youth Truth: Emotional and Mental Health



MANAGING CHALLENGING BEHAVIOR IN AFTERSCHOOL: This webinar will focus on managing challenging behavior, supporting kids who struggle, finding your footing (spot) when the behavior of certain kids (or parents!) pushes your buttons. Our featured presenter will be family therapist and school consultant, Sheri Glucoft Wong, LCSW. We will then hear from a panel of afterschool leaders and ask for comments and questions of the registrants. To learn more and register, click here.

PROMOTING KINDNESS IN AFTERSCHOOL PROGRAMS: This webinar will focus on strategies of how we can promote kindness in our afterschool programs. Our featured presenter will be Stu Semigran, Co- Founder and President of The EduCare Foundation. He just authored a book entitled, Heartset Education: A Way of Living and Learning. Following his presentation, registrants will have the opportunity to share their strategies and ask questions. To learn more and register, click here.

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