Updated Apr 3, 2022 - Health

American teens' health behaviors suffered a lot during pandemic

Illustration of a young person's leg wearing a ball and chain made from a large coronavirus cell.
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

From increased drug and alcohol use to high levels of reported abuse and feelings of mental distress, the pandemic wreaked some major havoc on the health of American teenagers, according to a CDC report released Thursday.

Why it matters: The stress and social isolation of the pandemic cut across age groups in ways we're still trying to understand.

  • But this nationally representative survey from the first half of 2021 is the most comprehensive federal look to date specifically looking at the experience of teens.

"These data echo a cry for help," said CDC acting principal deputy director Debra Houry in a statement.

  • "The COVID-19 pandemic has created traumatic stressors that have the potential to further erode students' mental wellbeing."

By the numbers: The survey of more than 7,700 high school students was taken between January and June 2021. The teens reported high levels of mental distress, risky health behaviors, economic instability and abuse.

  • Mental distress: For instance, more than 40% of teens said they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year, the survey found.
  • Economic instability: 29% said a parent had lost a job during the pandemic and one in four said they'd experienced hunger. 2% said they'd experienced homelessness.
  • Risky behaviors: Among the 43% of students who said they consumed alcohol, about 30% said they drank more during the pandemic and 22% said they drank six or more times in the past month. Among the third of respondents who’d ever used an illicit drug, 31% said they'd used more drugs during COVID.
  • Abuse: More than half (55%) reported they experienced emotional abuse by a parent or other adult in the home, including being the target of swearing or insults and more than one in 10 said they'd experienced physical abuse.

Zoom out: The findings come as Congress and the Biden administration are placing more emphasis on behavioral health as the nation emerges from the pandemic.

  • Congress is eyeing the prospect of mental health legislation this summer that could take up the role of telehealth, the coordination of care and gaps in the behavioral health workforce.

State of play: A Senate Finance hearing last month identified how isolation, depression and the loss of a parent or caretaker have weighed on youths during the pandemic.

  • Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Ranking Republican Mike Crapo of Idaho also pointed to the need to enforce federal parity laws that bar insurers from imposing limits on mental health benefits that are less favorable than limits on medical or surgical coverage.
  • President Biden this month laid out a unity agenda to address mental health needs that, among other things, would address the negative effect of social media on kids, and calls on Congress to ban excessive data collection on and targeted advertising for youths.

Between the lines: The children's mental health crisis may have been made worse by COVID, but it's not new.

The bottom line: Mental health was already a challenge for teens before the pandemic and it's not surprising the collective stressors of a global crisis made it worse for this generation of kids.

  • But there were some social supports that worked and that we'd do well to support in the future.

Editor's note: This story first published on April 1.

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