Adolescents’ Mental Health Deteriorated In 2020, While ‘Hostile Behaviors’ At School Jumped Pre-Pandemic: Reports

December 8, 2021

By a Biometrica staffer

Two reports released recently draw attention to a mental health crisis plaguing schools and students in the U.S. One is an advisory issued by the Surgeon General, which warns that “symptoms of anxiety, depression and other mental health disorders among young people have increased since the beginning of the pandemic.” A separate report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that was compiled upon request by a congressional committee found that, in the two school years between 2015 and 2018, “hostile behaviors” in K–12 public schools rose sharply.

According to the advisory issued by Dr. Vivek Murthy’s office, 25% of youth report experiencing symptoms of depression and 20% anxiety. Rates of impulsivity and irritability, which are often associated with criminal behavior, have moderately increased as well. Further, between early 2019 and early 2021, emergency department visits for attempted suicide among adolescents rose 51% for girls and 4% for boys. 

The GAO’s report found that attacks with weapons jumped 97%, while hate crimes and sexual assaults increased by 81% and 17%, respectively. Bullying behavior at schools was also shockingly high, per the report, with around one in every five students (5.2 million) between the ages of 12 and 18 having been affected by it. 

Experiencing or witnessing bullying can be hugely damaging for adolescents, who are more likely to suffer feelings of helplessness, the GAO said. The types of victimization covered by the report can “negatively affect K-12 students’ short- and long-term mental health, education, income, and overall wellbeing.” Studies have shown a link between violence, mental health illnesses like depression and anxiety, physical and sexual abuse, adverse outcomes later in life, poor employment opportunities as a result of poor school performance, and behavioral problems that range from “acting out” to increased likelihood of interacting with the criminal justice system.

In addition, according to the Surgeon General’s advisory, adverse childhood experiences (including exposure to community violence) can lead to the development of toxic stress, which, in turn, “can cause long lasting changes, including disrupting brain development and increasing the risk for mental health conditions and other health problems such as obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, both during and beyond childhood as well as for future generations.”

The issues of violence at schools and the mental health of adolescents is likely to be fresh in the minds of Americans, following the latest school shooting to make headlines. On Nov. 30, Ethan Crumbley, a 15-year-old student at Oxford High School, carried out a shooting at the school, killing four and injuring seven others. No motive has been revealed yet in the case, though prosecutors have said there is substantial evidence of premeditation and warning signs that were missed.

Though the GAO data predate the pandemic, they mirror trends noted this year in society at large, of hate crimes and homicide rates, particularly those involving a firearm, increasing rapidly. As noted by Dr. Murthy in the advisory, the pandemic only exacerbated trends that were already being noted before 2020. However, as with adolescents’ mental health, experiences and accounts of violence perpetrated among classmates are likely to have transformed over the last twenty months, especially with schools transitioning online for a good portion of the school year in 2020. It remains to be seen what these changes are, however.