As time goes by, we become more and more aware of how the COVID-19 pandemic affected the mental health of students across the world. Time spent in disrupted routines, secluded from peers and in a state of anxiety about the future of the world has had detrimental effects on students of all grades and ages.
Mental health struggles of college students have increased, with growing amounts of students having considered dropping out and two out of five saying that they frequently experience emotional stress. Nearly half of female students say the same, in a study from fall 2022.
In the first year of the pandemic, 34% of students had recently considered dropping out. In 2023, that number has risen to over 40 percent. This correlates with a growing, worrying statistic about young adults between 18 and 25. Half of the people in this age group report having symptoms of anxiety and depression.
In cases like these, mental health professionals say that there’s no shame in taking time off. Part of this falls on the student, but some of it also falls on the college to make sure that they have policies that simplify the process to return to school after a break.
Again, college-aged students are not the only ones facing heightened anxiety. The pandemic has led to a surge in school-avoidant children as well.
School avoidance, or school refusal, is a term used to describe a school-aged child who refuses to attend school or maybe faces difficulties trying to be in school for a whole day. This could describe students who miss multiple days per week, leave class during the day to go somewhere like the nurse’s office or leave the school entirely during school hours. Since the pandemic, more and more kids are school-avoidant.
The School Avoidance Alliance, which works to spread awareness to families and schools about school avoidance, estimates that five to 28 percent of students will exhibit school-avoidant behaviors in their lives.
Mental health experts say that school avoidance is generally a symptom of anxiety and most often occurs during the transition between elementary, middle and high schools. These are times when the social environment changes the most, putting the most stress on students.
During the pandemic, remote learning was introduced to many kids. This led them to get comfortable in their homes, and to get more difficult to return to schools, as they became used to socializing or learning virtually.
Avoidance can be used as a coping strategy by children, but it’s not a healthy one. It’s important that they unlearn it quickly so that they don’t use it as a primary way of dealing with problems that come up in their lives.
School avoidance, though, was not the only thing worsened by the pandemic. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report in 2022 detailing mental health consequences from the pandemic. This report looked specifically at the differences between students who still felt close to people at school and virtually connected to others, and those who didn’t. Students who felt closer to peers during the pandemic had a much lower prevalence of poor mental health, at 28.4% versus 45.2%. The same trend holds true when students were asked if they had seriously attempted committing suicide. 25.6% of students who said that they did not feel close to people reported seriously considering attempting suicide, versus 14% of students who still felt close with peers. It appears that maintaining closeness with peers, family and friends was a big determining factor in a student’s mental health during the pandemic. Increasing feelings of connectedness may help students post-pandemic.
That is easier said than done. With heightened rates of anxiety, connecting with people may be extra challenging for some. Balancing between these often falls on school counselors. But the United States is currently in a shortage of school counselors. The American School Counselor Association (ASCA) recommends an ideal ratio of students to school counselors of 250:1; however, the average in the country for the 2021-2022 school year was 408:1. This is still better than the year before, at 415:1.
Lower ratios give students more access to their counselors. Counselor access has been proven to impact student outcomes. Hopefully, the trend continues, and every year we will get closer to the ideal 250:1.
The pandemic changed a lot of things for a lot of students, some more than others. But now that the COVID-19 state of emergency has been declared over and life is slowly reverting back to somewhat “normal,” hopefully we take the lessons learned during the pandemic and apply them to the future to give students the most productive, safe environment possible.