The pandemic has had a profound impact on individuals at every life stage, but high school-aged children have had to navigate a particularly challenging set of obstacles and worries.
The Psychological Toll
Victor is looking forward to his last soccer game as a senior. He has dedicated years of his life to the sport and has worked hard to be on the varsity team. One night before his game, he gets a call from his mom who says that his Grandpa has contacted COVID and is not doing well. Victor, who is really close with his grandpa, begins to feel a surge of sadness and despair. When he tries to go to sleep that night, he starts to cry and has restless sleep. In the morning, Victor feels numb and refuses to get out of bed. How could he play a soccer game with the knowledge of his Grandpa’s sickness? Victor shuts down for several days, refusing to talk to anyone, go to school, shower, or even eat.
High school often gets touted as some of the best years of people’s lives. And in my practice, several teen clients have reported a general sense of grief that their high school experiences have been so negatively altered. Think: you wait years to finally get to high school — to go to prom, attend homecoming games, join your favorite club, make the varsity team, try out for the musical. Then, all of those opportunities disappear. This is inherently sad, and I talk a lot about normalizing this sense of loss for many adolescents.
Data and research support this notion, as anxiety and depression among adolescents have doubled compared to pre-pandemic levels.1 According to a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between March and May of 2020, hospitals across the country saw a 31% increase for kids ages 12 to 17 in mental health-related hospitalizations.2
Pre-pandemic suicide rates for adolescents were already increasing in the past decade. According to a CDC study, emergency room visits for attempted suicide increased in adolescents during the pandemic, as Covid stressors likely exacerbated ongoing mental health struggles. Particularly among girls ages 12 to 17, suicide attempts rose more than 50% higher than in 2019. For adolescent boys the same age, the increase was 4%.3
Parents report an increase in psychological distress in their children, and in a survey of more than 16,00 parents, upwards of one-third indicated that they are very worried about their child’s mental health and well-being.4
Obstacles during the pandemic include:
- Loss of school resources (i.e. supportive teachers, educational assistance, school-funded meals, safe environment, etc.)
- Disruption in structure and routine
- Loss of ability for teachers and counselors to identify teens who might be struggling
- Loss of activities, clubs or sports that give teens a sense of purpose and enjoyment
- Increased social isolation
- Increased stresses at home, including parental conflict, financial struggles, death or sickness of family member with Covid, and in some cases, more time in abusive households
How to Move Forward — Tip #1 for Guardians: Even if your adolescent’s high school has lessened Covid protocols and restrictions, do not immediately assume that your child is anxiety- and depression-free. For many adolescents, there are ongoing struggles as they adjust to a more “traditional” high school atmosphere. Psychological distress is cyclical, fueled by hard-to-break patterns.
The Social Toll
It is a beautiful sunny day, and Jack is laying in his bed, scrolling through social media. He is feeling lonely and isolated, and he desperately wants to hang out with people today. He goes to text a friend and types out a message, but then he pauses. Dread and anxiety start to manifest as he begins to worry about the interaction. What if the hangout is awkward? What if he says something weird? What if they don’t text me back? Feeling defeated, he deletes the text message and continues to scroll on Instagram.
High schoolers lean heavily on their peers for socialization, connection, and fulfillment. Those four years are a primary developmental stage during which teens expand their social skills by initiating conversations, making plans, and learning how to work through uncomfortable or awkward social dynamics.
Having to quarantine or attend school remotely limited these opportunities — and not just for a few weeks or months, but for two academic years. In turn, many high schoolers have experienced an increase in social anxiety when thinking about or interacting with their peers. They feel less confident in their ability to interact, and their social comfort zones have shrunk. This anxiety often prevents teens from putting themselves out there, with many avoiding social opportunities altogether. Teens have not only lost valuable opportunities to sharpen their social skills, but also lost the positive psychological impacts of spending time with their peers. For many, social isolation led to feelings of sadness, hopelessness and other depression-like symptoms.
During the height of the pandemic, many teens spent an increased amount of time on their phones. For high schoolers, socialization took place through social media, text, video and phone calls. Although ultimately beneficial for connection, these platforms fail to fully capture the essential ways people communicate — through body language, facial cues, affect, tone and pitch in face-to-face interactions.
Along these lines, I have seen many of my teen clients struggle with communicating with their peers in person because they cannot predict or control the outcome of the conversation as well as they can via text, like Jack in the above scenario, who so desperately wants to interact but struggles to know how.
How to Move Forward — Tip #2 for Guardians: If you feel like your adolescent might be struggling in social situations, ask about their in-person interactions with their peers. This can open a conversation about how they’re feeling or the anxiety they’re experiencing. Then, you can support them in ways that feel authentic to your relationship, as well as potentially enlist the help of a therapist who specializes in social anxiety.
The Academic Toll
Lilly looks down at her pile of homework and feels a sharp increase in panic and anxiety. She has finals this week, and although she is a junior in high school, she is experiencing her first real finals week. For the past two years, Lilly’s teachers have adjusted their curriculum to help support their students through the challenges of remote work during the pandemic. But this year, it is business as usual, and Lilly has no idea how to organize her time, prioritize her work, or study for a cumulative final. Lilly, feeling extremely overwhelmed, burnt out, and defeated, puts her head down on her desk and falls asleep.
For the first time in our nation’s history, the majority of high schoolers received their education through online and video-based platforms. Although most high schools have returned to in-person instruction, millions of students are feeling the ripple effects of the past two years.
Researchers are still gathering data to assess the impact of remote learning on long-term academic success, but early research shows that on average, students are five months behind in mathematics and four months behind in reading compared with students before the pandemic.5 About half of teens ages 14 to 18 said the pandemic had a negative impact on their academics, according to a Washington Post-Ipsos poll.6
In many schools, student expectations and responsibilities lightened, as teachers worked hard to be flexible in recognizing the negative impact Covid was having on their students. This may have looked like reduced or eliminated finals, less homework, or open book exams and projects. In some cases, this meant that many students started to enjoy their academics more, as they found it less difficult, easier to manage, and less anxiety-provoking and overwhelming.
But what happens when students are expected to return to pre-pandemic standards and expectations? For many, the return to in-person learning has been challenging, as expectations and responsibilities also returned. Many students report an increase in anxiety when thinking about returning to school. And many feel overwhelmed about how to navigate some of these expectations for the first time, such as organizing and prioritizing homework assignments, studying for finals, and balancing school with sports, clubs, sleep and socialization. Lilly in the above illustration struggles to work through her anxiety. Many teens right now are in similar spots — and also struggling to ask for help.
How to Move Forward — Tip #3 for Guardians: For many adolescents, the pandemic disrupted their structure and routine. Now, high schoolers are experiencing firsts, such as trying to balance their spring sports and clubs with a job, homework, time with friends and family, and more. If parents suspect an issue, they could check in with their teens about their routine to try to problem-solve together. Adolescents can especially benefit from support in outlining a plan and structure that works for them.
Impact on Marginalized Communities
As Covid-19 permeated society, it shed light on the very real and decisive inequalities in the American education and learning systems. The pandemic exacerbated these inequalities, and many marginalized communities experienced an unbalanced distribution of struggles and challenges. Moreover, current research strongly indicates disparities based on race, sexual orientation, gender and other factors as they relate to Covid’s negative effects on high school-aged adolescents.
Students of color — During the height of remote learning, education success varied by race and geographical location. The enduring discrepancy in access and resources for students of color in America further deepened the achievement gap, as Black and Latinx students showed a larger discrepancy in the number of lost learning months compared to their white counterparts.7
Students with disabilities — Without the assistance and supportive aids that many schools provide students with disabilities, adolescents who rely on these services struggled to navigate the remote learning atmosphere. This too further sheds a light on disability-based discrepancies in education systems. 8
LGBTQI+ students — The LGBTQI+ community has experienced heightened risks for anxiety and stress. This is likely due to the loss of access to supportive and affirming student organizations, which left this population at risk for isolation. Moreover, the pandemic exacerbated mental health struggles, as before the pandemic, individuals in the LGBTQI+ community were already victims of discrimination, oppression and victimization.
Asian American and Pacific Islander Students — Because of the pandemic’s origins in China, Asian American and Pacific Islander students, in particular, have faced increased risk of harassment, discrimination and other forms of victimization. Research highlights a strong correlation between discrimination and anxiety, depression, and sleep-related issues. 9
The adolescent in your life has their own unique story, but it is likely the pandemic has undoubtedly impacted them. The best we can do now is learn from the past two years and strive to lessen the achievement gap amongst marginalized communities. This work is ongoing and requires intentionality and effort of all interdisciplinary systems and organizations who can intervene and support our adolescents. Start by talking openly with the teen in your life about how they’re feeling academically, socially and psychologically.
2 Leeb RT, Bitsko RH, Radhakrishnan L, Martinez P, Njai R, Holland KM. Mental Health–Related Emergency Department Visits Among Children Aged <18 Years During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, January 1–October 17, 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2020;69:1675–1680.
3 Yard E, Radhakrishnan L, Ballesteros MF, et al. Emergency Department Visits for Suspected Suicide Attempts Among Persons Aged 12–25 Years Before and During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, January 2019–May 2021. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2021;70:888–894.
4,5 Dorn, E., Hancock, B., Sarakatsannis, J., & Viruleg, E. (2021, November 11). Covid-19 and education: The lingering effects of unfinished learning. McKinsey & Company. Retrieved April 19, 2022, from https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/education/our-insights/covid-19-and-education-the-lingering-effects-of-unfinished-learning
6 Balingit, M. (2021, November 3). What happened to America's teens when coronavirus disrupted high school? The Washington Post. Retrieved April 19, 2022, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2021/10/29/teens-poll-academics/
7 Dorn, E., Hancock, B., Sarakatsannis, J., & Viruleg, E. (2021, June 23). Covid-19 and learning loss--disparities grow and students need help. McKinsey & Company.
8Dia Jackson, Jill Bowdon. (2020). Spotlight on Students With Disabilities. Arlington, Virginia; American Institutes for Research.
9 Abrams, Z. (2021, April). The mental health impact of anti-Asian racism. Monitor on Psychology, 52(5). https://www.apa.org/monitor/2021/07/impact-anti-asian-racism