Nearly 60% of Washington high school students — and almost half of the state’s middle schoolers — were sad or depressed most days during the pandemic, state health and education officials reported Tuesday. Across those surveyed, 8-10% said they had little or no hope about the future.
The findings, which come from a survey of about 65,000 adolescents and teens, are preliminary and are not representative of all students, the researchers say. But they do offer a first look at how Washington’s young generation fared emotionally during the pandemic — and bolster anecdotal accounts from families, hospitals and government officials that youth mental health reached crisis level as the pandemic wore on.
The findings don’t offer insight into the severity of youth’s mental health concerns, but they do paint a troubling picture that suggests depression is pervasive among the state’s youth, experts say.
“I have lots of urgent concern about this. We are really seeing another pandemic of mental illness,” said Alysha Thompson, clinical director and psychologist at the inpatient psychiatric unit at Seattle Children’s, who was not involved in the research. “It validates what we’re seeing at the hospital level and … it’s pretty disheartening that youth in the area are really struggling.”
Among the other results: Youth reported concerns about their family’s finances, including worries that parents might lose their jobs or the ability to pay for housing. But nearly 60% of respondents said they have some feelings of optimism — and 90% said they are at least “slightly hopeful” — suggesting that many students have found a way to manage stress and persevere during an unprecedented period of loss and grief.
“We would have needed to do a deeper dive to truly know their thoughts about the future, but this suggests that an overwhelming majority of students are looking ahead with optimism,” said Jason Kilmer, who led the survey and is an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington School of Medicine. “For those who are not feeling that way, we need to make sure they are being supported and getting what they need.”
The findings come as a majority of the state’s 1.1 million school children head into at least a few more months away from classrooms — and as teachers prepare for fall, when they’ll welcome back many students who’ve been out of sight or behind a screen for more than a year and a half.
During school closures, hospitals including Thompson’s unit at Seattle Children’s reported surges in emergency department visits for youth mental health concerns. But “for every kid that is in an acute crisis, there are plenty of other kids who are hurting,” Thompson said, adding that many youth who came to her unit this year had new concerns or had never been through therapy.
In March, Gov. Jay Inslee declared a mental health crisis and ordered that schools reopen to every student who wanted to learn in person.
The same month, Kilmer and colleagues surveyed Washington middle and high schoolers about their physical and mental health, substance use, screen time, how they felt about schoolwork during the pandemic and their support networks. Kilmer worked with officials from the state’s education and health departments; the Washington State Health Care Authority funded the research. The survey included demographic questions, but the results aren’t disaggregated by students’ race, gender or any other traits.
The results suggest that substance use — including smoking cigarettes or electronic cigarettes, drinking alcohol and using marijuana — declined compared to the years before the pandemic. Parents and guardians may have kept a closer watch on their children and students may have socialized less with friends, Kilmer said.
In response to questions about academics, many students said they weren’t interested in taking extra classes over summer break or during the school year to catch up on learning they missed during the pandemic. But about 43% of high schoolers — and 34% of middle schoolers — said they’d consider one-on-one tutoring.
The survey also asked about students’ access to the internet and a device at home, and found that a vast majority of students usually or always had access. But more than two-thirds of middle and high schoolers said that completing school work was more difficult during the pandemic than before.
The results include responses from students at 330 schools located in 35 of the state’s 39 counties. But because the sample wasn’t random — schools and students opted in to the study — the data can’t be generalized.
Even so, the findings offer school district leaders up-to-date data on the types of academic and social support students need most, said Chris Reykdal, the state’s superintendent of public schools. An influx of new federal relief dollars, he said, could be used to fund these efforts.