Suniya Luthar and colleagues carried out a large study of 14,603 students that examines the mental health impact of school closures during the first three months of COVID-19.
They found that for most youth, rates of serious depression and anxiety were lower than rates in similar surveys before the pandemic, but rates did not decline for Hispanic and gender non-binary youth.
They also looked at how 10 potential drivers of mental health functioned overall and in different subgroups (defined by ethnicity, gender, and age).
The biggest influence on young people’s depression and anxiety during COVID-19, by a factor of 1.5-2, was how young people rated parent support, which was measured by two items: parents’ helpfulness in sorting out their feelings and low levels of stress caused by parents.
Many other studies have shown that COVID-19 has substantially increased levels of psychological disturbance among parents which, in turn, negatively affects parenting behaviors. On this basis, the main policy recommendation from Luthar and colleagues’ research is to ensure ongoing support for parents and other caregivers in times of crisis such as COVID-19. “Monitoring ongoing parent mental health and parenting needs, and intervening where appropriate, should be of high importance for public health efforts to promote child well-being,” the researchers suggest.
How the research was designed
The study included children and young people in middle and high school, that is, from 11 to 18 years old. It took place during the first three months of COVID-19 in 2020 in the United States. Just over one third of the children were of color and just under one third lived in families that received financial aid.
“The biggest influence on young people’s depression and anxiety during COVID-19, by a factor of 1.5-2, was how young people rated parent support.”
The students were from 49 relatively high performing schools with high Standard Assessment Test scores – 40 independent/private day schools, 8 boarding schools and one public school. Previous research has shown that students in these schools are at risk due to the very high pressures to achieve and the intense competition they face. At the same time, resilience studies indicate that findings on powerful risk and protective factors tend to generalize across different subgroups, meaning that the results from this study may have relevance beyond students in high-achieving schools.
The study asked students about 10 factors known from earlier research to influence mental health: (1) perceptions of parent support, (2) concerns heard at school, (3) adults to confide in, (4) friends to confide in, (5) learning effectiveness (“how well are you able to learn new school materials these days?”), (6) time for fun, (7) worry about grades, (8) worry about life after graduating, (9) worry about parents’ jobs and finances, and (10) worry about family health.
The first question addressed was whether there had been any changes in rates of serious depression and anxiety from 2019 to the first months of COVID-19. Levels of serious or clinically significant depression and anxiety, which had ranged from 5-10% in pre-pandemic 2019 research, were typically half those during COVID-19 in 2020. The notable exception to this were two groups: Depression in Hispanic young people hardly decreased at all and depression in gender non-binary young people increased a little.
Considering mental health as well as its potential drivers, the researchers drew attention to the unique experiences of several subgroups.
- Black youth reported lower levels of anxiety on average than White youth. At the same time, they reported somewhat lower parent support, more worry about family jobs, more concern about not having adults to confide in, and not having their concerns heard at school. Asian youth had the most confidence in their ability to learn during the pandemic. At the same time, they were more worried than White youth about their academic grades, their futures, and their families’ health and jobs.
- Hispanic youth were at a disadvantage compared to White youth on several dimensions, and unlike other groups of color, there was no area in which they fared better than White youth. Also, when tracked across the first 12 weeks of mandatory distance learning, students of Hispanic heritage showed steep increases in symptoms of anxiety, problems with learning, and worries about grades. Hispanic students described blatant experiences of discrimination at school and a relative lack of systematic attention to this.
- Even when comparisons of ethnic groups were statistically significant, the overall size of associations was small. By contrast, effects by gender were medium to large on both depression and anxiety. Compared to both males and females, gender non-binary youth reported higher levels of depression and lower levels of concerns heard at school and confiding in friends. This may have been because they had less access to support from professionals and friends as a result of being confined at home.
- Girls showed higher levels of depression and anxiety than boys, as is generally the case. They also reported somewhat less support from parents, less ability to confide in adults, less feeling that their concerns were heard at school, and more worries about family jobs and family health.
- Older students (high-school age) reported slightly higher levels of anxiety and depression than younger students (middle-school age), as well as less parent support. On two aspects of academics – effectiveness of learning and worry about their futures – older students were considerably more troubled than younger students.
The second question addressed in the study was, of the 10 drivers of mental health assessed, which ones were strongly related to students’ mental health?
“Hispanic youth were at a disadvantage compared to White youth on several dimensions, and unlike other groups of color, there was no area in which they fared better than White youth.”
Each of the 10 risk and protective influences listed earlier was statistically related to levels of depression and anxiety, but one stood out as the most influential: perceived parental support. This pattern of findings generally held true in different student subgroups based on students’ ethnicity, gender, and age (middle versus high school). Following parent support, other dimensions important for mental health were effectiveness of learning online, concerns heard by school adults, and worries about grades and about the future.
In addition to recommending support for parents, the researchers stressed the importance of supporting teachers, who have been pivotal in boosting young people’s mental health during COVID-19. When asked what was going well at school during school closures, students in this study mentioned support from their teachers most frequently. In the months ahead, schools will need to help buffer against burnout and emotional exhaustion among their faculty and staff as a result of high, longstanding burdens of caregiving.