CDC: More Than 1 in 3 High Schoolers Experiencing Poor Mental Health. What Schools Can Do

A group of emoji faces, one is frowning, another is smiling, another looks angry.
(Image credit: Image by Gino Crescoli from Pixabay)

The CDC’s most recent survey of high school students helps quantify the mental health problems teachers are seeing unfold in real-time, says Kathleen Ethier, director of the CDC's Division of Adolescent and School Health program, which organized the survey.

More than a third of students reported experiencing poor mental health during the pandemic. Nearly one-fifth had seriously considered attempting suicide, while 9 percent attempted suicide. 

“Any teacher will be able to tell you in great detail what shows up in our data, which is that the pandemic exacerbated a crisis in mental health for young people,” Ethier says. 

While the numbers from the survey are grim, a silver lining is that there are strategies to combat these problems that we know work, Ethier says. These include building school connectedness through social and emotional learning programs and effective classroom management. 

Understanding the Data on Adolescent Mental Health  

From January to June 2021, Ethier and her colleagues collected data from 7,705 public and private high school students across the U.S. who were representative of the country’s overall student population. 

In addition to the negative overall trend in mental health, CDC researchers found some groups were at higher risk. Nearly 47 percent of gay, lesbian, or bisexual students “seriously considered attempting suicide” compared to 13.6 percent of heterosexual students. Twenty-six percent of women surveyed seriously considered attempting suicide, nearly twice the number of men who considered suicide. 

While it’s easy to understand how the pandemic exacerbated negative trends in mental health, pinpointing what was fueling those trends prior to the pandemic is more difficult.

“If you are an LGBTQ student who doesn't have supports in your school, and there's bullying and you don't feel safe in your school, that will have an impact on your mental health,” Ethier says. “If  you are a young person of color, and you experience racism in school, there's a connection between racism and mental health, and that also can cause a problem.” 

Other potential non-pandemic factors are still being studied. 

“We don't know for sure why female students seem to be having more significant problems,” Ethier says. “There's some suggestion that social media is having an impact on that. And I think the story's not completely written there. There are some ways social media can be a great connector. But it can also lead to electronic bullying and to impacts on self-esteem and body image that female students may be particularly susceptible to.” 

How Schools Can Help Improve Student Mental Health 

Fostering a sense of connectedness in students is a key to combating the mental health crisis, Ethier says. The CDC research found that students who felt close to people at school had a lower prevalence of poor mental health during the pandemic. Only 28 percent of those who said they were close to others at school experienced poor mental health compared to 45 percent of those who did not feel close to others at school. Those who felt connected to school were also less likely to have seriously considered suicide (14 percent versus 26 percent). 

Part of building this sense of connectedness is creating a welcoming environment for all students. “We know that by making schools more inclusive for LGBTQ students, we are able to have a positive impact on mental health, not just for those students, but also for all students in the school,” Ethier says. 

Strategies for increasing school connectedness include: implementing social and emotional learning programs; reviewing disciplinary policies to ensure they are being implemented equitably across racial and ethnic groups; fostering relationships between students, their families, and school staff; and providing professional development for teachers to improve classroom management. 

While something such as classroom management is not intuitively connected to mental health, it can play a key role. 

“We have found that schools and classrooms that are well-managed are safer for students,” Ethier says. “There's less likely to be bullying in a classroom when the classroom is well-managed.” 

This sense of control should extend outside of the classroom to the cafeteria and hallways. “A safe environment where students feel safe is a really important source of connection for students,” Ethier says. “The more chaotic a school is, the less connected students feel.” 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.