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  • About 37% of teens surveyed by the CDC reported poor mental health during 2020.
  • At least 73% reported at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE).
  • ACEs are associated with an increased risk of mental health problems and an increase in suicidal thoughts.

Many people have reported concern about the effects of COVID on mental health. Teenagers in particular been affected after dealing with social distancing and missing in-person school. Additionally, many faced traumatic events during the pandemic.

Now the CDC has recently released a report about the COVID-19 pandemic and adolescents’ mental health. About 37% of those surveyed reported poor mental health during 2020. At least 73% reported at least one adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) during that time, and 12% experienced three or more.

Those who had experienced ACEs were more likely to report mental health problems and suicide attempts than those who did not.

The report took 4,390 high school students and asked them if they had experienced various ACEs during the COVID outbreak or in the past 12 months. Students were also asked about their overall mental health, whether they had experienced long periods of sadness or hopelessness during that time, and whether they had thought about or attempted suicide.

ACEs were grouped by type and number experienced and those who had experienced one or more had their mental health results compared to those who had not reported any ACEs during that time period. The researcher reported that 1,167 teens had experienced no ACEs, 2,358 one or two ACEs, 512 three, and 353 four or more.

Adverse childhood experiences are a variety of experiences that are known to be traumatic or upsetting to those who experience them.

These include witnessing or being a victim of violence, drug and/or alcohol abuse, food insecurity, and parents or other family members dying, being absent from the family, or in prison.

ACEs are commonly associated with mental health problems and an increase in suicidal thoughts. While there are no comparable studies that show the number of ACEs in students before the pandemic, a study that asked adults about ACEs in childhood found that 60.9 percent reported at least one, and 15.6 percent reported four or more.

The number of ACEs that students reported had a direct and negative effect on their mental health. Around 30% of those who reported at least one ACE reported poor mental health over the past 30 days, and around 65% of those who reported four or more ACEs said the same thing.

In contrast, only about 15% of those who had experienced no ACEs said the same thing. Groups who had experienced at least one ACE were more likely to report poor mental health during the COVID pandemic in 2020 and persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness.

Around 20% of those who reported at least one ACE said they had felt actively suicidal during the past year. If they had experienced four or more ACEs, that percentage increased to around 55%.

Rates of actual suicide attempts ranged from less than 5% from those who had experienced no ACEs to at least 35% in those who had experienced four or more.

“This study demonstrates the devastating mental/social/emotional negative effects in just a small portion of time,” said Dr. Shawna Newman, a psychiatrist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City. “This data reflects the devastating effects of the pandemic on youth and the rapid escalation of negative impact on mental health worsened by the lack of sufficient resources and services to serve the needs of young people.”

Lynn F. Bufka, PhD, ABPP, associate chief of practice transformation at the American Psychological Association, said reducing ACEs must be a goal for healthcare providers.

“At the same time, increasing the other side of the balance- that is, increasing the resources that a student has to cope with adversity is essential. This involves addressing systemic disparities (such as differences in neighborhood safety or access to healthcare or school nutrition) as well as supporting the development of psychological and cognitive skills to deal with distress (through social-emotional learning programs in school or providing access to mental health counselors or a range of other possibilities),” said Bufka.

The CDC admits the study is limited and more research is needed.

No variables besides the number of ACEs went into the mental health evaluations, and other aspects of the COVID pandemic may have influenced scores. In addition, only seven categories of ACEs were included. That may mean some teens did experience an ACE that was not one of those categories and then counted as not having experienced an ACE.

Since the study was self-reported, some subjects may have not reported mental health issues or ACEs that they had experienced.

The CDC still reports that ACE prevention in adolescents is an important part of mental health intervention and that the COVID pandemic may have affected the number of ACEs and/or the effect they had on the subjects.

The CDC authors suggested providing family economic supports and connecting students and parents to available community mental health resources.