Last spring, while talking with a UW student who seemed to be thriving, I found out she was anything but. She said she had been excited to return to campus after spending her sophomore year taking classes online due to the COVID lockdown. She had been thrilled to return to her apartment and roommates, to her campus ministry activities and in-person classes. But rather than life being “normal” again, she had found herself drowning in anxiety, floundering under a heavy class load. I would never have known by looking at her. A beautiful young woman. Totally capable. But struggling mentally and academically.
Around the same time, I talked with one of my friends who is a college advisor. She said that she and other advisors were noticing that incoming students were showing developmental delays in socialization. They seemed fragile and needed more handholding. While some of this might be related to students missing out on high school rites of passage, research indicates that the number of students feeling sad, hopeless, or lonely has increased significantly, in part due to the isolation imposed by the pandemic.
During the COVID-19 lockdown, more than half of young people nationwide were subjected to extraordinary stressors at home with negative impacts on their mental health. While the impacts are likely not obvious in the youthful faces of highly-motivated UW students now on campus, I can’t help but wonder what some students are dealing with and how they are faring mentally. Some new students, especially freshmen, could find themselves overwhelmed with work early on. Though they were admitted based on meeting UW’s high standards (at minimum they have to have a 3.5 GPA, ACT score of 27, or an SAT score of 1260), once the school year starts the work piles high with increasing difficulty. Added to that, the appearance of “having it all together” matters enormously to most young people. Regardless of the fact that no-one ever has it “all together,” students are in that tricky stage of trying to launch and successfully live into their “promise.” The pressure is on. Are they a match for it?
Research on Youth in the United States
Based on the available research and anecdotal evidence, today’s entering freshman are far different than the ones entering college a mere five years ago. Even well before the pandemic, CDC research was sounding the alarm about the mental health of high school youth. For example, a 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey showed that nearly 37 percent of high school students surveyed in 46 states, tribal areas, and territories reported being “sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks in a row.”[i] This was a 40-percent increase since 2009. A significant increase was also found in the percentage of high school students who made a suicide plan or attempted suicide.
Certainly, there are different variables and nuances at play in the results, so I encourage you to look up the cited research reports. That said, the results are deeply concerning.
Results of another CDC study, the Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey, administered to U.S. students in grades 9-12 in January – June 2021, reaffirm reasons for alarm. Nationally representative data from 128 schools and 7,705 students starkly illuminate “the magnitude of the challenges our nation’s youth faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.”[ii] After most U.S. schools closed and moved to online instruction in March 2020, this online survey sought to estimate the “prevalence of disruptions and adverse experiences [youth faced] during the pandemic, including parental and personal job loss, homelessness, hunger, emotional or physical abuse by a parent or other adult at home…and difficulty completing schoolwork. [iii]
The percentage of students who felt “sad or hopeless” during the lockdown increased to 44 percent (up from 37 percent). More than one-third reported “poor mental health.” Almost 25 percent went hungry because there was not enough food in the home. Citing a March 2022 CDC press release[iv]—
- More than half (55%) reported they experienced emotional abuse by a parent or other adult in the home, including swearing at, insulting, or putting down the student.
- 11% experienced physical abuse by a parent or other adult in the home, including hitting, beating, kicking, or physically hurting the student.
- More than a quarter (29%) reported a parent or other adult in their home lost a job.
A light in the dark: When students had a sense of being cared for, supported, and belonging at school, they were significantly less likely to (a) report persistent feelings of “sadness and hopelessness” than those who did not feel that sense of “connectedness” (35 vs 53 percent); (b) seriously consider attempting suicide (14 vs 26 percent); or (c) attempt suicide (6 vs 12 percent). The percentage of youth who “reported feeling close to people at school during the pandemic” was 47 percent.
Loneliness and the
Being known by name, at your school and university, makes a difference. Beyond schools, what about communities of faith? Church connections? Youth group connections? Brad M. Griffin of the Fuller Youth Institute discusses implications of research conducted by Springtide Research Institute (SRI) and reported in Navigating Uncertainty: The 2021 State of Religion & Young People. SRI’s research affirms that youth anxiety levels are sky-high, in part due to the heightened “uncertainty” that permeates our society, especially with increased school shootings and gun violence at large. Springtide also reports that youth feel “lonely.” Shockingly, only 10 percent of young people report[ed] that a “faith leader reached out to them throughout the first year of the pandemic.”[v] (italics mine) Griffin notes that while society is opened up and people are gathering again, “the sense of being alone lingers for many.”
In the wake of the lockdown and its continuing ripples, I wonder if a sense of being alone (rather than belonging) may be more normative for youth, especially for those already at risk and on the margins. If a sense of being alone is amplified, so too a sense of uncertainty and anxiety might be—especially because the more time we are alone, the more time we have to ruminate on our feelings and thoughts.
This brings me back to university students and the people who care about them—including university staff, parachurch and other ministry leaders, and Upper House staff. As we work in this post-isolation pandemic phase, we all recognize that our organizations are on the same footing as society at large: the long-haul phase of diagnosing and addressing the real impacts of the pandemic in the lives of young people in our spheres. Years of CDC research clearly shows that our youth and students acutely need attending to, especially as many cope with pre-existing problems magnified by the deaths of friends, family, and parents, the loss of jobs, homes, stability, and more. Moving on, as we are wont to do to escape the past, is unrealistic, partly because the pandemic isn’t over yet, but merely in a new stage. The silver lining, if there is one, is that our isolation reminded us of our true interdependence and need for one another: We all, rather desperately, need to be connected with others to be more mentally healthy.
Loving Our Neighbor Means Loving Our Youth
Connectedness is directly related to our call to love our neighbors, including our youth.
We may, as adults, feel like we mostly live in parallel to the young people around us, but our lives are linked by the call of Christ to care for our neighbors in ways that are constructive and affirm their value as God’s children. As I learned from that student I regularly saw, yet did not “see,” I need to do something very basic, every day, to connect with the young people in my sphere: Stop. Really look. And really listen.
Stop living in my head. Look at the students around me. Ask how they are. Listen to what they say and what they don’t. Not just once, but again and again. Be more intentional. Try to remember their names. Remember how I felt at their age and acknowledge times have changed. Remember that every student is both formed and being formed, an Imago Dei, a beloved person made in the image of a loving God.
And when I walk down State Street in Madison and overhear student conversations that swing from swagger to profound sobriety, I need to remind myself to say a little prayer. Even for students who seem to have it all together, I need to be mindful that there is way more to them than meets the eye. They, too, may be recovering from home-based trauma or dealing with anxieties they’re loath to admit. In fact, they are at the very center of a new pandemic phase we all find ourselves in: Long-haul healing—the type that requires a lot of long-haul love and initiative to deepen real human connections.
If you know a UW student who needs or is looking for mental health support, please point them to UW-Madison’s University Health Services.
[iii] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Disruptions to School and Home Life Among High School Students During the COVID-19 Pandemic — Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey, United States, January – June 2021 Supplements / April 1, 2022 / Available at https://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/volumes/71/su/su7103a5.htm?s_cid=su7103a5_w#abstract.
[iv] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) press release. March 31, 2022, New CDC data illuminate youth mental health threats during the COVID-19 pandemic. Available at https://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2022/p0331-youth-mental-health-covid-19.html Accessed September 7, 2022.
[v] Fuller Youth Institute, “What you need to know about teenagers in 2022, Brad M. Griffin. Available at https://fulleryouthinstitute.org/blog/what-you-need-to-know-about-teenagers.