Learn / Challenges in Education: COVID-19, Addiction, and Mental Health

Challenges in Education: COVID-19, Addiction, and Mental Health

Grace Ogren
 June 10th, 2024|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Dr. Malasri Chaudhery-Malgeri, Ph.D.

Key Points

  • Students face emerging challenges in education, including addiction and mental health.
  • COVID-19 disrupted education and contributed to loneliness and stress.
  • Resources for students and their families, plus ideas for the future, offer healing.

Newer generations have had to hurdle many new challenges in their education—a global pandemic, a rise in school violence, and an unmet demand for mental health and addiction treatment. COVID-19, in particular, completely shifted how school and socializing worked, and many students still feel those effects. 

These challenges have brought a rise in mental health and addiction struggles in teens despite their resilience and desire for treatment. Fortunately, students and their families have many resources for healing. Dr. Dana Battaglia highlights some of these resources in our recent podcast episode; listen here.

Stats on Addiction in School-Age Kids

Kids and teens often experiment with substances like alcohol and tobacco. “Study drugs” like Adderall often pass hands1 during finals or other testing seasons. School can be an easy place to get and distribute vapes, marijuana, and “hard” drugs like cocaine. Alcohol is the most commonly used and abused substance2 among teens, followed by marijuana and tobacco products. Here are the stats at a glance:

  • 61.5% of teens have overused alcohol by their senior year
  • In 2022, 407,000 teens 12-17 years old met criteria for alcohol use disorder
  • 35.2% of teens smoked or vaped marijuana in 2022
  • 788,000 teens ages 12-17 met criteria for illicit drug use disorder in 2022 (1-in-8 teens)
  • Half of teens have misused a substance once or more

Between 2016 and 2020, the rate of 8th graders taking drugs went up 61%. One in 8 teens abuse drugs, making youth drug use a major public health concern2. Not only does substance use damage their health and well-being, but it can also impact their ability to do well academically and advance to college. 

Social acceptance and peer pressure could initiate substance use. For example, teens may feel pressured to drink at a party to fit in and not seem like a ‘downer.’ Drinking in these situations can progress into drinking in other situations, like casual hangouts with friends or even alone in their room. 

Similar to alcohol, vaping has been normalized among teens, leading to a reported 2.1 million teens using vapes in the U.S3. Well over half of teens want to quit but haven’t had successful attempts. Starting tobacco use as a teen often leads to continued use in adulthood.

Mental Health Stats in School-Age Kids

Mental health conditions, especially untreated, can also impact students’ abilities to succeed in school and maintain their well-being. Mental health conditions can also lead to substance use4 as a coping mechanism, potentially leading to addiction. These are some stats on mental health conditions in students:

When mental health conditions affect a student’s ability to learn, they’re classified as having an “emotional disturbance.” Having an emotional disturbance makes students eligible for an individual education program6 (IEP), which offers more personalized education services and catered support services to help students succeed. However, few students get this important support. Many schools and teachers don’t have the resources to care for these students, leading to more suspensions and removals. 

Solutions center around seamless, integrated care—mental health support, educational support, and parental support all in one place: school. 

Impact of COVID-19 on Teen Education and Well-Being

Lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic changed how teens and children got their education, socialized, and learned. Many lost out on major milestones like graduation and prom. In-person classrooms became Zoom meetings on small Chromebook screens. As schools and educators adapted for virtual learning, new problems took root. 

A survey done by the Center for Disease Control7 reported these findings:

  • Of U.S. high school students, 67% felt like schoolwork got harder
  • 55% suffered emotional abuse at home
  • 11% suffered physical abuse
  • 24% didn’t have enough to eat during the pandemic

Adding in isolation and loneliness, these factors could strongly impact learning and teen mental health. Students also reported excessive homework and assignments8, lack of motivation, and difficulty with finding a balance between school and life. Those who needed extra help in the classroom lost access to the in-person, 1-1 attention required to help them stay on track. 

Students also lost the vital social interactions offered in a classroom. One student says9

“Learning without the social cues of a classroom was difficult. At in-person school, I took notes when I could see that everyone around me did. During Zoom, I didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing.” 

The White House found lower test scores10 in math and reading during the pandemic than in previous years, likely due to virtual learning. But, they noted, numbers didn’t fall too far outside the norm. Resiliency, adaptability, and instruction from parents and teachers prevented what could have been a much steeper decline. The same student from above echoes that, saying,

“People adapt and become stronger even with uncertainty. I can deal with it too.”

Explore Young Adults Treatment Centers

Preventative Measures and Available Resources for Healing

Students with mental health conditions, whether influenced by COVID or not, have multiple resources available for healing. But they often don’t know they’re there. 

Overwhelmed schools and staff can rarely provide the awareness many students need to know they have resources available, like access to school counselors, therapists, and state-funded mental health programs. Adequate awareness of these resources could help students access crucial mental health and addiction support before issues affect their learning and well-being. 

Students can also access resources outside of school, like therapy, intensive outpatient programs, or youth-focused crisis services. Many crisis services focus specifically on youths and certain demographics, like LGBTQ+ teens. Here are a few lines you can call or text:

  • TrevorLifeline: help for LGBTQ+ young adults needing support. Text 678678, call (866) 488-7386, or chat with them online.  
  • Hey Sam: peer support for people up to 24 years old. Text 439-726 from 9AM to 12AM ET and talk about anything on your mind.
  • Teen Line: support and resources for teens offered by highly trained volunteers. Call (800) 852-8336, text 839863, and chat online.

Future Goals and Ideas

Students showed resiliency through the COVID-19 pandemic and day-to-day struggles with mental health conditions and addiction. Gen Z takes an active stance in reducing their likelihood of addiction by drinking less11, up to 20% less than Millennials. Wellness trends, better awareness on mental health and addiction, and viewing mental health as important as physical health add up to make an inspiring impact.

Encouragement from schools, parents, and peers to maintain this momentum could reduce addiction and related mental health conditions in an entire generation. 

More mental health staff at schools could support this positive change and extend it to younger generations. For example, a school may employ a social worker for every grade who can provide in-the-moment crisis support, connect students to available care options, and educate parents on the support needed. 

Schools could also change or reduce punishments for substance use. As an example, catching a student vaping or drinking on-campus could automatically enroll them in an educational after-school program rather than a suspension. Mandatory education on drinking, drug use, and mental health conditions could also teach students the dangers of substance use and prevent addiction before it starts.

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