Op-ed: We can’t ignore COVID-19’s impact on youth mental health

Group of youth

In an op-ed for The Hill, CUNY SPH Distinguished Scholar Lyndon Haviland urges the Senate to pass the Mental Health Services for Students Act, which would help schools develop programs to meet their students’ mental health needs.

We can’t ignore COVID-19’s impact on youth mental health

By Dr. Lyndon Haviland, opinion contributor

October 19, 2020

Lyndon Haviland
CUNY SPH Distinguished Scholar Lyndon Haviland

When Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Calf.) introduced the Mental Health Services for Students Act back in February 2019, not even she could have imagined how important this bill would be today. Having recently passed the House, it’s now up to the Senate to lead by example and support our nation’s youth, a demographic that has been uniquely impacted by COVID-19.

Young Americans are increasingly battling COVID-19 while experiencing social isolation, loss of connections, loneliness and mental illness in record numbers. A recent nationwide survey found that more than half of college and high school-aged students are worried about their own mental health due to the pandemic. Of grave concern, a quarter (approximately) are aware of someone who has exhibited suicidal thoughts since COVID-19 began. Five percent reported attempting it themselves.

The same study found that less than half felt their school offered meaningful resources to address these issues. These numbers should frighten us all because if young people are the future, they must have access to the support they need to manage their mental health in this difficult environment.

The impact of mental health on students was already high even before the pandemic began. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, one in five children reported having a mental health disorder nearly a year ago. And as of 2018, suicide was the second-highest cause of death for those between the ages of 10-34. At the high school level and below, the long term effects of social isolation and remote learning due to COVID-19 are not yet known. One survey suggested that the mental health impacts of lockdowns could persist for up to nine years.

Many university students today are living in a heightened state of anxiety. Some students returned to schools and failed to adhere to proper COVID-19 protocols and were soon sent home following spikes in cases. Others who attend schools that maintain strict “zero tolerance” COVID-19 rules of conduct can find themselves confined to their rooms, living in perennial fear of being “written up,” potentially suspended, or even expelled for the slightest rule infraction.

As one college warned its students, “Hold one another accountable. Do not be selfish. … Do not be the person who causes us to shut down this semester. Do not be the reason that valued [university] employees are furloughed or lose their jobs. Do not test the resolve of this university to take swift action to prioritize the health and well-being of our campus … .” Messages like this only magnify the anxiety and stress college kids already feel.

Igor Chirikov, with the Student Experience in the Research University Consortium, noted that colleges should expect an uptick in mental health cases and plan accordingly. “As the pandemic continues,” he said, “universities need to be prepared for a surge of student requests for mental health services in the fall and beyond. … Current plans to continue education with remote or hybrid instruction won’t be effective without adequate resources for mental health support programs.”

This is precisely why Rep. Napolitano’s bill is so important. It will provide $130 million in competitive grants and help schools develop programs to meet their students’ needs. Creating programs that help young people manage stress and build resiliency is essential to students’ current and future health nationwide. Identifying the early signs of mental illness can help assure access to appropriate treatment.

“We are continuing to witness how fear and anxiety about the Coronavirus can be overwhelming and cause strong emotions for our constituents, especially children, as the public health crisis rages on,” said Rep. Napolitano. “Together, we must continue to increase mental health awareness, reduce harmful stigma, and connect our future leaders to life-saving care.”

She’s right. Increasing access to youth-friendly services and ending the stigma surrounding mental health will give students who stand to benefit the most from these resources the confidence to seek it.

We must pay attention to COVID-19’s silent impact on America’s young. This epidemic is affecting our leaders of tomorrow in their most impressionable and formidable years of life.

Young people often aren’t comfortable asking for help. That’s why we must do our part to make the resources in Rep. Napolitano’s bill available to them so that they may access the help they need before it’s too late.

Lyndon Haviland, DrPH, MPH, is a distinguished scholar at the CUNY School of Public Health and Health Policy.