Stress and anxiety worsened among Minnesota K-12 students, especially females, as they endured the social and academic upheaval of the pandemic along with the usual pressures on children.
Results from the 2022 Minnesota Student Survey were released Friday, with 29% of students reporting mental health problems lasting six months or longer — up from 23% in 2019. Among female 11th graders, 45% reported long-term mental health, behavioral or emotional problems, up from 35% in 2019.
The statewide survey, which is conducted every three years, is a vital look at student health and well-being — but perhaps never more so than since the pandemic hit.
Months of school closures, online learning, mask mandates, sports restrictions and other measures took place in 2020 and 2021 to protect people. Disruptions to daily life and academic progress resonated in 2022.
“The pandemic has fueled and exacerbated ongoing trends in our teenagers reporting long-term mental health issues,” said Jan Malcolm, commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Health. “More research will be needed to know the interaction of all the factors, but it is clear that this is a crisis.”
Among the 135,000 students who took part in the survey this spring, 43% said they worried a lot during the previous month and 48% said they sometimes feel sad – even if they don’t understand why.
The results came as no surprise to Richfield High School junior Antwan Ruiz. He could see the malaise that COVID-19 caused among students after in-person learning resumed — for some in the spring of 2021 while still wearing masks, but for others in the fall.
“Being alone, you get used to it,” he said. “You’re like in this shell and you don’t want to break out.”
Ruiz is part of a safe and supportive school committee in Richfield, which uses survey data to identify problems and offer solutions for students. Changes made by the group include updating the dress code to allow expression through the wearing of hats and scarves.
The increase in stress and anxiety is disappointing, given the group’s efforts to make students feel safe and included, said Christina Haddad Gonzalez, director of student support services at Richfield. But the research proves that the right questions are being addressed.
COVID-19 has affected students in big ways, including making relatives sick and creating fear of infection, she said, but it’s also had an impact in smaller ways. The transition to online learning in the spring of 2020 meant that eighth-graders missed graduation events and middle school dances, then went straight to high school the following year.
“That’s why I’ve seen more worry and more grief,” she said, “We’re leading by addressing that first, because if our kids don’t feel loved, cared for, connected and safe, they’re not going to be able to engage their frontal lobes to learn”.
Chamlin Park High School senior Hawa Kabdullahi said many peers were tasked with watching their younger siblings or taking part-time jobs to help with family finances in the early days of the pandemic. Those responsibilities added stress at a time when teenagers were adjusting to the challenges of remote schoolwork.
“They were balancing classes and taking care of their families. I think it was all complex,” she said.
Students in grades 11, 9, 8, and 5 from 70% of Minnesota school districts were included in the survey. Minneapolis Public Schools participated, but St. Paul Public Schools did not.
About 2-3% of the responses are dismissed as restless, such as students who claim to take every illicit drug every day. Teachers are trained to create environments in which students feel comfortable answering sensitive questions honestly, said Sharilyn Helgertz, a senior researcher in the health department involved in the research.
Kabdullahi noticed that it was harder to get her male peers at Champlin Park to talk about their feelings or admit when they were feeling low.
“So many of them are not ready to talk to their friends,” Kabdullahi said. “They don’t have the same support system that girls do.
It’s possible that female students are more comfortable being truthful and answering survey questions about their mental and social challenges, but the fact that the gender gap in mental health rates widened in 2022 suggests it’s not a statistical glitch, Helgertz said. .
“The girls were just — ugh, I was so sad when I looked at the girls’ data,” she said.
Their college ambitions are higher—with 69% of female 11th graders planning to attend a four-year institution after high school, compared to 52% of their male classmates. It can speak to the pressure on young women.
The pandemic has added stress for high school students, disrupting their job prospects or college plans, said Sarah Jerstad, medical director of outpatient mental health services at Children’s Minnesota. For grade school students, periods of staying at home reduced the social interactions that encourage emotional and developmental growth.
Parental support, large groups of friends and social media helped some students, but others lacked those advantages, she added. “Some, if they were already struggling socially, somehow fell.
Helgertz was surprised that increased stress and anxiety did not result in more substance abuse. Alcohol and cigarette use decreased, along with sexual activity. E-cigarette use among 11th graders rose from 17% in 2016 to 26% in 2019, but fell to 14% this year.
“Kids feel really uncomfortable, but they don’t turn to substances, they don’t turn to risky behavior, and they still try in school,” Helgertz said. “They’re still doing their best.” I am so impressed with these kids. This generation can save a lot.”
Ruiz said time management is a challenge — with school, homework, soccer and working at the M&M store at the Mall of America. The football field has been a source of relief and joy for the Richfield varsity star, but he occasionally skips practices to make time for himself and his family.
During the pandemic lockdown, Ruiz made sure his younger sister kept an eye on her studies. He feels the pressure to be a role model for his sisters and live up to his parents’ expectations. When he feels overwhelmed at school, he leaves the classroom.
“Just walk into the hallway for a few minutes,” he said, “catch yourself and just breathe.”