Student Survey: Depression, Stress and Anxiety Leading Barriers to Learning as Access to Trusted Adults Drops
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In the 2020-21 academic year, close to half of American students facing learning barriers reported experiencing higher levels of stress, depression, and anxiety. Conversely, students mentioned a decrease in access to a trusted adult with whom they could discuss their stress, according to a recent national survey.
The national nonprofit organization YouthTruth conducted their third and final survey of young people during the pandemic. The survey found that 49 percent of students expressed concerns about the negative impact of their increasing mental and emotional issues, while only 39 percent claimed to have an adult at school to whom they could turn for support. This gap in access to social and emotional assistance has widened compared to the data from the previous fall 2020 survey, conducted at the start of the students’ first full school year amidst the pandemic.
Jen Wilka, the Executive Director of YouthTruth, highlighted that at the beginning of emergency distance learning in spring 2020, there was actually a peak in adult connections. These interactions and the energy they bring, which students consider essential for learning, have diminished over the past year and a half. This is evident in the decreasing number of young people who claim to have a supportive adult in their school environment.
Wilka stated, "Students felt a significant effort from their teachers to reach beyond the virtual walls and understand their realities. However, this effort has now declined and returned to a more normal level, perhaps slightly higher than before. We observed a peak in spring 2020."
One positive aspect of student-adult relationships in schools that has shown improvement over time is the level of respect. Approximately 70 percent of students now believe that adults treat youth with respect, which is a significant increase compared to the 57 percent recorded before the pandemic.
YouthTruth gathered data from 206,950 students in grades three through twelve from 19 states and 585 schools in urban, suburban, and rural areas. The organization collected open-ended and multiple-choice responses through anonymous 15-minute surveys conducted from January to May 2021.
Previous surveys conducted by YouthTruth during the pandemic took place in May through June 2020 (20,000 students) and October through December 2020 (85,170 students). Mental health concerns have consistently been identified as a barrier to learning, and the pandemic continues to impact the post-graduation plans of high school seniors. Students have voiced the importance of establishing meaningful relationships with their teachers, and their sense of belonging within their school community was at its highest point in the fall of 2020.
Of the recent survey participants, 21 percent attend high-poverty schools, which aligns with the national average of 25 percent. Additionally, the racial identities of the students surveyed mirror the national averages.
Since the fall of 2020, depression, stress, and anxiety have increasingly become obstacles to learning for students of all gender identities. However, female and non-binary students experience significantly higher rates of these challenges, with 60 percent and 83 percent respectively.
Student responses and qualitative analysis showed that students feel overwhelmed by excessive and irrelevant assignments that do not reflect their daily lives or future aspirations.
One high school upperclassman shared, "School prevents me from being content with who I am. The education system needs radical change, and it is long overdue. I can no longer find the motivation to get out of bed. I now dislike school even more than before. The stress from distance learning has had a significant toll on my mental well-being… However, I still have an English assignment and 11 other assignments due at 11:59 pm tonight because grades are deemed more important than my well-being and finding healthy coping mechanisms."
Education leaders across the country are actively seeking ways to address the growing concerns regarding students’ emotional and social well-being. Many states plan to allocate funds from the American Rescue Plan to enhance access to mental health services.
In the North Clackamas School District, which serves the Portland, Oregon area, social and mental health services were already in place before COVID-19. However, the district observed an increased need for emotional support during the pandemic. To meet these changing needs and ensure that students had access to adults and connection, the district collaborated with service providers and nonprofit organizations to offer telehealth services, devices, and internet hotspots to students and their families throughout the district.
Educators Are Preparing for the "Second Pandemic" by Prioritizing Mental Health First Aid
In order to overcome barriers to learning and enhance student engagement, young people have expressed their desire for more real-world topics to be included in their education. This includes subjects such as applying for higher education, seeking financial aid and job opportunities, and learning about personal finance.
Results from a recent survey indicate that fewer high school seniors plan to attend four-year institutions this fall compared to previous years. This decline in enrollment rates is the largest in a single year since 2011. While there has been a slight increase in enrollment at two-year colleges compared to fall 2020, it has not yet reached pre-pandemic levels.
Qualitative data from the survey has revealed some of the barriers that high school students face when trying to access higher education. Students have identified the importance of social capital, such as support from teachers or siblings, as a key factor in college access. They have also expressed confusion regarding the application process, which is typically not taught in depth during school hours. Additionally, students have mentioned that they feel they receive information and guidance too late in the process. One student explained that many students are hesitant to attend a four-year college due to the fear of incurring debt.
Sonya Heisters, the deputy director of YouthTruth, states that students are searching for meaning in their education, presenting an opportunity for educators to connect learning with real-life experiences to address students’ needs.
Other notable findings include:
– Perceptions of learning and belonging among secondary school students have returned to pre-pandemic levels.
– Many Spanish-speaking students encountered language barriers while learning in virtual and hybrid environments. Additionally, 21 percent of Hispanic/Latino students reported a lack of teacher support as an obstacle to their learning compared to 14 percent of other students.
– Recommendations from 5,000 Black/African-American students include the need for inclusive curricula, anti-racist policies, and fair treatment.
– Many students enjoyed the transition to paper-free learning and hope to continue accessing online materials even when returning to in-person schooling.
– Black/African-American and Hispanic/Latino students reported feeling unsafe in school at higher rates compared to their non-Black, non-Hispanic peers (11 percent and 16 percent respectively, compared to 9 percent).
– While 65 percent of students feel that their teachers provide extra help when needed, this is more commonly reported among students who receive high academic grades.
It is important to note that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provides financial support to YouthTruth and .