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Pandemic or Not, Teen Mental Health Is Fragile

Paulette Cha March 4, 2021
photo - Teen Sitting at Picnic Table

Teen mental health is a major public health concern that has become even more pressing during the COVID-19 crisis. Among the many links the pandemic has illuminated is the role of schools and mental health care for teens. After schools closed in March 2020, disagreements arose and continued between teachers’ unions and government leaders, while federal and state guidance around COVID-19 evolved. As a result, many middle and high schools have been closed for much of the past year.

The pandemic and school closures greatly reduced teens’ interactions outside of their families. While parents may be frustrated by having children at home all day, adolescents are equally frustrated at having to limit their social lives. Adolescence is a developmental stage when teens need to establish separate identities from their parents. This is difficult during the pandemic, when they spend most of their time with family and in-person interactions with friends and trusted adults like teachers and counselors are limited. Moreover, school has been replaced by distance learning, which provides fewer hours of learning and is widening gaps for low-income students and those of color.

Before the public health crisis, teen mental health in California had been declining, and things may be even worse now. A youth-led organization’s informal mental health survey of adolescents found that during the pandemic, unhealthy home environments, money worries, COVID-19 risk, and working essential jobs were among the stressors affecting youth mental health.

The need for mental health services is high, and schools have a key role to play in connecting adolescents to help. A 2016 law required school districts to adopt a suicide prevention policy addressing high-risk students, but the law has not yet been implemented as envisioned. As a result, students who most need resources in this trying time may not be getting them.

figure - Mental Health for California Teens Has Worsened in Recent Years

Some groups of teens are at greater risk and would benefit from proactive outreach. LGBT youth, whose sexual orientation or gender identity do not conform to traditional expectations, have elevated risks of self-harm and suicide. Family financial issues can turn up the pressure on low-income teens or those whose families have been ineligible for most COVID-19 economic relief due to documentation status.

Recent developments could begin to reduce the mental health strain on teens. California has moved to prioritize COVID-19 vaccinations for teachers beginning this week, addressing an important safety concern among educators. Discussions continue in Sacramento on a bill that would incentivize and help fund safe reopening of schools. The Golden State Stimulus will provide cash payments, offering economic relief to low-income families, including undocumented and mixed-status families.

Adolescents have also taken some matters into their own hands, producing resources such as a crowd-sourced mental health guide for their peers. Still, teens need more help. To emerge successfully from this crisis, California teens will require targeted support and resources to improve their mental health.

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