New data shows the impacts of quarantine on local teen mental health

For nearly two decades, the Communities that Care Coalition has coordinated an annual survey of Franklin County and North Quabbin’s 8th, 10th, and 12th graders. Each year, The Coalition works with local schools to collect and provide valuable data on teen’s relationship with their school, their families, and substance use. With the tremendous changes of the past year, the 2021 survey was adapted to better reflect the questions raised about the impacts of COVID and quarantine on our youth.

The Coalition has just publicly released the first pass at the 2021 data, focused largely on mental health, the fastest growing problem identified in the survey.

A screenshot of some of the people who virtually attended the coalition meeting via zoom. There's a 4x5 grid that showcases several Franklin County community members.
A screenshot of some of the people who virtually attended the coalition meeting via zoom.

Accelerated Release Plan

“Our data is always helpful, but this year’s data feels particularly actionable and time sensitive. We have school counselors with more and more students seeking help for mental health struggles. This data highlights the full scope of this crisis, confirming the toll COVID has taken on our youth,” said Sage Shea, who is one of the data analysts processing the results. “While results are anonymous, each school district receives a report on identified trends. In the past, we’ve sent survey results in the summer. This year, we’re releasing data in phases so the schools can act on it more quickly before students leave school for the summer.”

“The pandemic has amplified trends that we’ve been seeing for the past several years as young people have been spending more and more time online and alone and less and less time with peers,” said Kat Allen, the Coalition Coordinator. “This year of quarantine has taken that to an extreme.”

Student reports of symptoms of depression (measured by students answering that they were so sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks or more in a row that they stopped doing some of their usual activities) have been on the rise over the last decade. Teen mental health was already alarmingly high in 2019 when 32% of students reported symptoms of depression. This number took an unprecedented jump to 42% of students in 2021. Similar increases were seen in reported symptoms of anxiety with rates jumping from 33% in 2019 to a previously unimaginable 43% in 2021.

A still from the slideshow that highlights a spike in mental health. Symptoms of depression have gone up tremendously while suicidal ideation haven't risen between 2019 and 2021.
A still from the slideshow that highlights a spike in mental health. Symptoms of depression have gone up tremendously while suicidal ideation haven’t risen between 2019 and 2021.

Longitudinal data trends for teen mental health.

When asked what they feel most worried about, students’ top three concerns were (1) climate change, (2) social justice issues, and (3) their appearance. Fears of personally getting sick from COVID ranked lower than the majority of other concerns.

In addition to high rates of loneliness and isolation, the survey examined poor mental health contributors like inadequate sleep (nearly half of students are sleeping 6 or fewer hours per night). Other contributors included tremendous screen time (more than half of students reported spending four or more hours per day in addition to the hours they already spend on their screen for school and school work), and school stress (not surprisingly, the vast majority of students found school to be more stressful and less enjoyable than it was before COVID).

All groups appear to be struggling, but who’s hurting the most?

Girls and Trans Students

Girls reported higher levels of depressive symptoms than boys (51% compared to 28%). Similar disparities were seen in rates of anxiety (56% and 26% respectively). Transgender and gender nonconforming students (who make up 4% of those surveyed) had even more alarming rates of mental health symptoms with 77% reporting symptoms of depression and 75% reporting symptoms of anxiety.

Queer and Questioning Students

Queer and questioning students (27% of the total sample) reported double the rates of symptoms of depression and anxiety than their straight peers (66% of queer and questioning students reported depression and 68% reported anxiety, compared to 33% of straight students).

Students of Color

Rates of depression and anxiety were also slightly elevated for students of color and for students from families with lower socio-economic status compared to their white and higher SES peers. When comparing mental health outcomes for specific racial and ethnic groups, Native American students (1.3% of the total sample) and multi-racial students (6.6% of the total sample) had particularly elevated rates of symptoms of depression and anxiety compared to their peers (50% of Native American students and 47% of multi-racial students reported symptoms of depression compared to 42% of white students; 50% of Native American students and 55% of multi-racial students reported symptoms of anxiety compared to 43% of white students).

“We know that even relatively small differences in mental health challenges between groups in adolescence can become exacerbated over time due to the unequal access to resources in our society. We also know those with more intersecting marginalization can be even more vulnerable,” said Shea.

One piece of surprising and somewhat positive news is that the survey did NOT show any change in the percentage of students who reported seriously considered suicide in the last year. That number remained constant at 17%. There remains, nonetheless, significant disparities between different identity groups – girls’ rates of suicidal ideation is twice that of boys (20% compared to 10%), and transgender or gender nonconforming students’ face higher rates still (46%). Queer and questioning students have more than triple the rate of suicidal ideation than their straight peers (33% vs. 10%). Students of color and students from families with lower SES have higher rates of suicidal ideation than their white and higher SES peers (20% vs. 15% in both cases). Again, Native American students were at the highest risk of any racial or ethnic group, with 35% of Native American students reporting suicidal ideation (compared to 16% of white students). Multiracial students also were at elevated risk (22%).

“The data really show how much our students are struggling, and how much we need to increase the mental health supports we have in place for students as we continue to transition to a new normal,” says Allen. “It is more important than ever to support our community counseling programs, to teach social and emotional skills to students of all ages, to help students build connections to their schools, their communities, and their families, and to work to dismantle the system of white supremacy which is at the root of these disparities.”

Press Features

Teen survey: Substance use down, mental health concerns continue, The Greenfield Reminder, Zack DeLuca, May 16, 2021

*Note, the press feature is different than the press release, pulling in more stats that directly mirror the flow of conversation from the Coalition meeting.

See Our Presentation

Virtually Free Movie Screening

Among increasing calls for racial equity, Franklin County has joined those striving for change. In the fall, the Communities that Care Coalition (CTC) partnered with GCC, GCTV, Greenfield Savings Bank, and local schools for a virtual showing of “I’m not Racist, am I?” which broke Coalition records with over 700 devices and an estimated 1,200 viewers. 

This January, the Coalition collaborated with local organizations to start dialogues around the mass incarceration of youth. Every year about 300,000 kids are confined in juvenile detention in the US. 70-80% percent of those detained will be re-arrested within 3 years. Director André Robert Lee’s documentary “Virtually Free” follows the lives of three boys in Richmond, Virginia as they work with unlikely allies who partner to transform the juvenile justice system and stop mass incarceration. 

The film’s director, Lee, sat down with CTC’s Community Engagement Coordinator, Keyedrya Jacobs, and Greenfield’s Chief of Police, Robert Haigh, to have a dialogue after the screening.

“We’re used to seeing the blue line represent a brotherhood that always stands in certainty, unwaveringly backing each other and their way of doing things. But Haigh says when he doesn’t know something. He shows up and listens,” one event attendee remarked.

Jacobs, a strong local advocate for racial justice, first spoke with Haigh nearly 5 years ago in a community forum. Since then, she’s featured him on her podcast, “Let’s Be Honest” and has continued to talk with him through events like this.

“Haigh’s willingness to listen and show up has allowed our conversations to evolve and as we try to figure out how to change this system and make Franklin County safer,” said Jacobs.

Sage Shea, a program evaluator who works alongside Jacobs, added, “I’m an abolitionist, but I stil think harm reduction is vital even if it’s not as large as the end goal. The people working on all the incremental shifts that come with reform make police systems more receptive to radical change. At the end of the day, policing systems have disproportionately harm communities of color. I want that harm to be gone, but lessening that harm is still a win.”

“There’s been a clear hunger for learning and action within the community,” Shea added. The day of the screening, an estimated 300 people (150 devices) logged on to watch, and many more watched in the one-week following the live screening.

What’s more, is in a time of economic hardship when the country seems more and more divided, local businesses and organizations contributed to raise the money needed to pay for licencing and host the screening. From The Brick House to Greenfield Community College, Salasin Project to the Interfaith Council, and countless others, local collaborators contributed over four thousand dollars to bring this conversation forward and make the community a more just place for all its residents. 

“I’ve known the Chief for years, and he knows he needs to listen to Black women. We’ve been mutually available to each other. My approach to justice always starts from a place of, ‘I love you, and you can do better,’” Jacobs said. But their relationship isn’t always effortless. There were months when she needed space from him because she couldn’t emotionally separate him from the system he works within. 

“And he’s had to sit with that discomfort,” Jacobs added, pausing. “Haigh is a humble man, one of the youngest ever in this position. He knows he will forever be learning and that’s important. The biggest takeaway from the event was that even if you don’t have faith in the police system, we’re really fortunate that we can trust our Chief of Police here.” 

Haigh has encouraged his staff to watch the documentary. Still, the continued documentary screenings are just one of many tools. Haigh will be connecting with the Racial Justice Community Engagement Leader at the Franklin County Community Development Corporation, Traci Talbert, to build on this momentum. 

“I love that I know that my brothers and sons can be safe here and that the police are building these relationships in the community.  To me this is a win,” Jacobs ended with, smiling.