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Study: Adversity during pandemic linked to poor mental health, suicidal behavior

October 13, 2022

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Nearly three-quarters of high school students experienced serious adversity during the COVID pandemic, and those who did were more likely to have poor mental health, according to a new study.

“This analysis highlights the ongoing, urgent need to address adversity experienced before and during the pandemic to mitigate its impact on mental and behavioral health,” authors from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) wrote in a new Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.

The CDC analyzed data from the 2021 Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey. About 4,400 high school students answered questions in the first half of the year about their mental health and seven adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) — physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual violence, physical teen dating violence, electronic bullying, parent job loss and food insecurity.

Data show 73% experienced at least one ACE during the pandemic. About 8% reported four or more. Roughly 37% experienced poor mental health, 20% considered suicide and 9% attempted suicide.

Experiencing any number of ACEs during the pandemic was associated with poorer mental health and increased suicidal behaviors than having none. As the number of ACEs rose, so did mental health troubles. The prevalence of poor mental health was four times higher in teens who experienced four or more ACEs than teens who experienced none. In addition, the rate of suicide attempts was 25 times higher in those with at least four ACEs than those who had none.

Each of the ACEs was linked to poorer mental health and suicidal behaviors. For instance, 83% of those who experienced sexual violence in the past year felt persistently sad or hopeless and 33% attempted suicide, according to the study. The strongest predictor of poor mental health and suicidal behavior was emotional abuse.

“Primary prevention and intervention strategies for ACEs and their acute and long-term impacts, including early identification and trauma-informed mental health service and support provision, could help address the U.S. child and adolescent mental health and suicide crisis,” authors wrote.

The AAP has been sounding the alarm on these issues. A year ago, the AAP, American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Children’s Hospital Association declared a national emergency in children’s mental health, citing the serious toll of the COVID-19 pandemic on top of existing challenges. Thursday, the groups sent a letter with over 130 signatories to the Biden administration asking they do more to address the mental health needs of children, specifically requesting they issue a National Emergency Declaration in children’s mental health.

“As pediatricians, we recognize that the current crisis makes promoting mental health a necessity for all children and adolescents. It also requires transformative action to address,” said AAP president Moira A. Szilagyi, M.D., Ph.D., FAAP, said in a statement. “By declaring the mental health crisis a national emergency, our federal government can help mobilize resources and activities to address the needs of children and teens."


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