Mental health checkup: 3 ways students are feeling about post-COVID friendships

Mental health advocates are particularly concerned about students in the LGBTQ+ community
By: | November 4, 2021
Before the pandemic, one in five children had a diagnosed mental health disorder, an expert says. (Unsplash/Matthew Ball)Before the pandemic, one in five children had a diagnosed mental health disorder, an expert says. (Unsplash/Matthew Ball)

Students felt classmates have been friendlier during COVID but fewer are saying they can be themselves around their peers over the last 18 months, a new survey shows.

The national advocacy organization YouthTruth surveyed students about their relationships and sense of belonging in spring 2021, fall 2020 and pre-COVID. Here what those surveyed revealed:

  1. 66% of students said most of their peers were friendly to them. That was a drop from the 69% who said the same in fall 2020 but an increase from 61% pre-COVID, according to national YouthTruth surveys.
  2. 55% of students this spring said that they felt they could be themselves around other students, a significant decline from fall 2020 (57%) and prior to the pandemic (61%).
  3. In spring 2021, just 44% of students said they collaborated with classmates when asked to by teachers; that percentage has stayed remained flat since before the pandemic. Only a quarter of students surveyed this spring said they collaborated with classmates even when it was not part of an assignment.

These results show that administrators and teachers can help students develop their social networks and make healthy connections with peers by providing opportunities for collaborative and interdependent learning.

“A student’s feeling that they can ‘be themselves’ is necessary to student belonging and opens pathways to other aspects that drive student success such as motivation, self-efficacy, and engagement with learning,” the survey says. “Additionally, a students’ peer group offers an important developmental context that can promote prosocial behaviors.”

LGBTQ+ inclusivity

A student’s sense of belonging, of course, has ramifications for their wellbeing and mental health, both issues which have been of heightened concern as educators work to recover from COVID.

Since before the pandemic, advocates have been particularly focused on the mental health of groups such as the LGBTQ+ community who have been marginalized in the past.

Some 35 states and the District of Columbia report that over half of their secondary schools connect students to off-campus psychological service providers who have experience treating lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and/or questioning (LGBTQ) youth, according to an analysis by Child Trends, a nonprofit research organization.

While many LGBTQ youths successfully navigate adolescence, a substantial number suffer from stigma and discrimination that leads to a greater risk of mental health problems, substance use disorders and suicide, the analysis says.

During COVID, LGBTQ youths have reported having little access to mental health counseling and living in stressful situations within non-LGBTQ-affirming homes.

But many school counselors feel ill-equipped to work effectively with LGBTQ students, another recent study found. And some clinicians deny services to LGBTQ individuals or won’t discuss sexual or gender identity.

Moreover, only 25 states and the District of Columbia protect minors by banning conversion therapy—the discredited practice of trying to change an individual’s sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.