Feb 11, 2021 - Health

Experts say school closures are hurting teens' mental health

Illustration of a person sitting under a cloud shaped like a virus
Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

School districts and mental health professionals remain concerned about the pandemic's effect on children's mental health.

The big picture: Hospitals have seen a significant increase in mental health emergencies among children, and federal officials have acknowledged that prolonged school closures have deprived students of both formal services and simple human interaction.

What they're saying: "The isolation we need to do to save lives is hitting them right at their developmental core," said Ken Duckworth, chief medical officer at the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

  • The pandemic has been harder on teens and young adults than on younger children, said Shekhar Saxena, professor of the practice of global mental health at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
  • "It’s the young adults and the children who are being impacted and the effects are going to be long-lasting," he said.

What's happening: Clark County, Nevada reopened schools earlier this year after 18 student suicides occurred over nine months, double the amount from the previous year.

  • Official data on suicide rates during the pandemic isn't available yet, but anecdotally some parents have said they believe isolation and school closures contributed to their children's' suicides.

Many schools are trying to offer virtual help.

  • Using a surveillance application, Clark County has flagged more than 3,100 concerning keyword searches since March from students who borrow iPads from the schools.
  • Cobb County, Georgia schools set up a virtual calming center with links to support hotlines, relaxation exercises and animal webcams. 

Experts say those tools can help, but can't take the place of social interaction.

  • "When our kids aren’t being exposed to other kids and they’re socially disconnected, or our kids aren’t being given the opportunity to learn and to thrive, that has a ripple effect," said Benjamin Miller, chief strategy officer of the Well Being Trust.

Go deeper: Reach out to beat the pandemic winter blues

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: dial 711 ,then 1-800-273-8255) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

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