© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Stress And Depression Rising Again Among Students As School Closures Drag On

The coronavirus outbreak has changed how mental health professionals are serving their patients.
Nat Thomas | St. Louis Public Radio
About a quarter of teenagers are struggling with depression, twice as many as normal, according to research.

Even the social media generation is a little sick of screens. And school counselors say it’s starting to show, as more teens and children grapple with prolonged bouts of increased stress, anxiety and depression.

School social workers and researchers say rates of depression among students are still higher than normal with remote schooling dragging on into the winter.

“They're tired of looking at a screen all day; that does become exhausting,” said Christine Woodward, a social worker with the University City School District. “This generation of kids loves screens in general. But it's not as fun when we spend all day long on Zoom calls, one after another after another.”

Depression rates are lower than during the early weeks of the pandemic when schools abruptly closed and coursework shifted from the blackboard to the laptop, according to research from Washington University. But as most middle and high school students still do their schooling primarily from home, away from friends, teachers and counselors, motivation for academics is hard to come by, school counselors said.

“This year, I feel like kids have been in this constant state of concern since March because over the summer we didn't know what was going to happen” with the start of the new school year, said Chris Ventimiglia, a counselor at Oakville High School in the Mehlville School District.

“I feel like this is a moment in time where kids have not had that chance to take a breath,” he said.

At the start of the school year, about a quarter of high school students screened by Chris Rozek, an education professor at Washington University, showed signs of major depression. That’s double the historical average — 11% — and as the pandemic lasted into the winter, rates are increasing again, he said.

At the peak of the spring lockdown, nearly half of teenagers — 44% — screened by Rozek showed signs of major depression. Nearly 85% of Rozek’s students were lonely, and academic motivation “plummeted” to just a quarter of teens wanting to do schoolwork.

“Overall that presents this picture of a really big social and emotional problem,” Rozek said.

And since the school year began, younger students are bummed about not being able to sit with all of their friends at lunch (due to class cohorts), U City’s Woodward said, while older students are struggling to stay motivated for Zoom class lectures and to switch to homework at the end of the school day (along with missing their friends).

“They regress every time they miss three months of school just for summer break. So can you imagine how they're regressing from missing, you know, the past six months, nine months' worth of school,” Woodward said. “So it's a major concern that we have, and it's no one's fault.”

As schools pause or reverse efforts to bring students back into classrooms, it’s unlikely high schoolers will see a desk or their lockers, or more of their friends, before Christmas.

Woodward is doing as many home visits as she can to U City’s 700 or so high school students. She and her colleagues have passed out kits with stress balls and other activities, such as journals and coloring books, to help students cope. And she encourages them to get as much exercise and fresh air as possible during the day.

Ventimiglia tells his students to practice “a little bit of gratitude and some perspective” every day, such as being glad we have the technology to continue learning remotely and video chat with friends and family.

“I think it's kind of natural to constantly think about everything that's wrong and negative,” he said. “But it takes some conscious effort to practice gratitude and remind yourself of what is good about right now.”

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

Ryan was an education reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.