Suniya Luthar and colleagues carried out a large study of 14,603 students that examines the mental health impact of school closures during the first three months of COVID-19.
They found that for most youth, rates of serious depression and anxiety were lower than rates in similar surveys before the pandemic, but rates did not decline for Hispanic and gender non-binary youth.
They also looked at how 10 potential drivers of mental health functioned overall and in different subgroups (defined by ethnicity, gender, and age).
The biggest influence on young people’s depression and anxiety during COVID-19, by a factor of 1.5-2, was how young people rated parent support, which was measured by two items: parents’ helpfulness in sorting out their feelings and low levels of stress caused by parents.
Many other studies have shown that COVID-19 has substantially increased levels of psychological disturbance among parents which, in turn, negatively affects parenting behaviors. On this basis, the main policy recommendation from Luthar and colleagues’ research is to ensure ongoing support for parents and other caregivers in times of crisis such as COVID-19. “Monitoring ongoing parent mental health and parenting needs, and intervening where appropriate, should be of high importance for public health efforts to promote child well-being,” the researchers suggest.
How the research was designed
The study included children and young people in middle and high school, that is, from 11 to 18 years old. It took place during the first three months of COVID-19 in 2020 in the United States. Just over one third of the children were of color and just under one third lived in families that received financial aid.
“The biggest influence on young people’s depression and anxiety during COVID-19, by a factor of 1.5-2, was how young people rated parent support.”
The students were from 49 relatively high performing schools with high Standard Assessment Test scores – 40 independent/private day schools, 8 boarding schools and one public school. Previous research has shown that students in these schools are at risk due to the very high pressures to achieve and the intense competition they face. At the same time, resilience studies indicate that findings on powerful risk and protective factors tend to generalize across different subgroups, meaning that the results from this study may have relevance beyond students in high-achieving schools.
The study asked students about 10 factors known from earlier research to influence mental health: (1) perceptions of parent support, (2) concerns heard at school, (3) adults to confide in, (4) friends to confide in, (5) learning effectiveness (“how well are you able to learn new school materials these days?”), (6) time for fun, (7) worry about grades, (8) worry about life after graduating, (9) worry about parents’ jobs and finances, and (10) worry about