My God, these are horrific figures:
[H]ospitalizations for all listed mental health conditions increased by nearly 50% among children aged 10 to 14 years, and by 21% for emergency department (ED) visits. . . . Inpatient visits for suicide, suicidal ideation, and self-injury increased by 104% for children ages 1 to 17 years, and by 151% for children ages 10 to 14 years during this period. (Academic Pediatrics.)
Our children are in crisis! We have to get them back to school asap before any more damage is done!
Except these statistics are from 2006 to 2011, when kids were in school, in person.
But wait, there’s more. Here’s a graph of suicides for ages 10-24, from 2000-2017, based on CDC figures.
America’s youth have been in a mental health crisis for years.* It certainly didn’t begin in the pandemic, although many politicians and media figures are all of a sudden terribly worried about mental health issues, which they didn’t pay much attention to before the pandemic. They argue that there’s been a dramatic decline in young people’s mental health since the pandemic began, and they typically blame school closures for the problem.
Gaslighting 101: Pandemic Youth Suicide Wave
Over the summer, as President Donald J. Trump was trying to strong-arm schools into reopening, Dr. Robert R. Redfield, then the C.D.C. director, warned that a rise in adolescent suicides would be one of the “substantial public health negative consequences” of school closings. (The New York Times, January, 2021; updated April, 2021.)
Perhaps the most disturbing claim about young people circulating during the pandemic is that there has been a dramatic increase in suicides. But it never happened—it was all hype. Tom Bartlett establishes this in his essay “The Suicide Wave That Never Was:”
President Joe Biden asserted not long ago that “suicides are up.” You’ll hear the same presented as fact by news anchors, politicians on both sides of the aisle, and (as I did recently) on your neighborhood listserv. But the evidence supporting a broad, pandemic-driven suicide crisis among teens—or adults, for that matter—was always a narrative in search of data.
But you don’t have to take Bartlett’s word for it about teens and suicide. Here is the CDC’s language, which breaks down the rate by age, and includes pre-teens:
Although [suicide] rates for persons aged 10–14, 15–24, and 25–34 increased between 2019 and 2020, only the 5% increase for those aged 25–34 (from 17.5 to 18.3) was significant.
And even this is a bit misleading because the non-significant increase in suicides of 10-24 year olds between 2019 and 2020 took place after a dip in 2019. So, the increase was relative to a year in which there was a dip, and this dip appears to be unusual in relationship to the preceding years. In other words, 2019’s dip looks like it may prove to be the outlier, not 2020’s non-significant increase. Here’s the longer view.
[T]he suicide rate among adolescents and young adults aged 10–24 in the United States increased 57.4% from 6.8 per 100,000 in 2007 to 10.7 in 2018. (CDC, September 2020.)
That there wasn’t a large increase in suicides among young Americans during the pandemic is somewhat surprising, because of the range of serious emotional, physical, and financial challenges that young people and their families had to face. But even if there had been a large increase, it still would not have proven that school closures were responsible—there are many other possible causes!—and as we shall see, there is a good reason to be suspicious about anyone claiming that there is a link between school closures and increased suicides.
Gaslighting 102: Schools and Mental Health Go Hand In Hand
Those claiming that suicides and suicidal ideation increased because kids were not in school must confront a well-established pattern: suicides and suicidal ideation increase when children are in school. Let me repeat, suicides and suicidal ideation increase when kids are in school. This is borne out in the research. There are data and studies (and more studies). In his article for the Toronto Star, “In-person schooling is not a mental health panacea for children,” Tyler Black—medical director, emergency psychiatry, B.C. Children’s Hospital—writes:
Here’s the clinical truth: any pediatric psychiatrist will tell you that school days are when we see most kids in suicidal distress. The highest rate of youth suicide is on weekdays during school months. Why is that? Because school’s benefits also come with downsides.
He goes on:
Imagine my frustration when I see political and media talking points urging that kids must go back to school “for their mental health.” Each time, I want to transport that person into the room with me to see the crying, suicidal child, who is distressed over their piling homework. The child distressed over perfectionistic anxiety and their marks. The child with the eating disorder being teased about their weight. Or, the child being bullied at school because of their race or sexual orientation. Schools are not a mental health panacea.
These days we are prone to romanticizing how schools worked in “normal” times, and blame their closures for problems that are older and lie much deeper. From Bartlett’s article:
“It’s not a schools-are-closed, kids-are-killing-themselves problem,” Cerel told me. “That makes it look very simplistic, and like reopening schools is going to solve it. The problem is that there isn’t an easy fix.” **
We see article after article, and talking head after talking head, repeating that closed schools are the cause of the mental health crisis during Covid. Of course, since the kids were back in the fall and the crisis seems to have continued, it’s hard to argue that school closures were primarily responsible. However, even assuming that there was an increase in the incidence of mental health issues during the pandemic, there is no proof that school closings were the sole or even the major cause. There are too many other variables, for example, death of a relative, death of more than one relative, parental anxiety about catching Covid at work, financial distress, a reduction in sexual encounters among older kids, confusing official responses to Covid, increasing awareness of climate change, worries about catching Covid—even a preoccupation with social media has been proposed as a cause of mental health issues.***
We don’t need studies to tell us about the bottom line, although there are such studies, namely, that many children are unhappy in school. No, not just unhappy, deeply unhappy, to the point where it is clear that they are suffering, and psychological problems ensue. We have known this for years. We turn a blind eye because the schools are so built into the fabric and functioning of the larger society that we can’t imagine children not attending. We pretend the suffering only involves a very small number of children, malcontents, and that everyone else is doing great, until a pandemic comes along, and we need the schools open for society to function. Now all of a sudden we are permitted—no, encouraged—to worry about the mental health crisis among kids, as if it is a pandemic phenomenon. And when the pandemic is over, many of these same people shrieking about a mental health crisis in order to keep the schools open will conveniently forget about the problem—after all, it was only a pandemic thing, and now we’re back to “normal.”
Gaslighting 103: We Should Be Terrified About Learning Loss
But if the kids aren’t in school there will be “Learning Loss.” This we hear repeated ad nauseum. Learning Loss, however, exists only as measure of student performance on standardized tests, and there are many reasons to be critical of the relationship between standardized tests and genuine education. Yet, even if we agree to use standardized tests as a marker, it’s clear that commentators have hyped the “loss.” As a matter of fact, it turns out that this so-called “loss” is not about regression to some lower level of performance. It is about improvement at a lower rate, that is, progress, but less of it. Here’s how David Leonhardt paints the picture in his New York Times op-ed, “No Way To Grow Up.”
Children fell far behind in school during the first year of the pandemic and have not caught up. Among third through eighth graders, math and reading levels were all lower than normal this fall, according to NWEA, a research group. The shortfalls were largest for Black and Hispanic students, as well as students in schools with high poverty rates.
“We haven’t seen this kind of academic achievement crisis in living memory,” Michael Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute told Politico. (Emphasis in original.)
Wow! Sounds horrific. Children “fell far behind.” Now let’s take a look at the summary of the results from the same study Leonhardt used from NWEA.
KEY FINDINGS• On average, students across most grades (3-8) made reading and math gains in 2020-21.• However, students’ outcomes during the pandemic-affected school year were lower on multiple dimensions: • Students made gains during the 2020-21 school year at a lower rate compared to pre-pandemic trends, especially between winter and spring.• Students ended the year with lower achievement compared to a typical year, with larger declines relative to historical trends in math (8 to 12 percentile points) than in reading (3 to 6 percentile points). • Achievement was lower for all student groups in 2020-21; however American Indian and Alaska Native (AIAN), Black, and Latinx students, as well as students in high-poverty schools were disproportionately impacted, particularly in the elementary grades we studied.” (Emphasis added.) ****
I’m sorry. This doesn’t sound like a grave crisis, with children falling “far behind.” Notice there is a linguistic sleight-of-hand here. When most people say they have fallen “far behind,” they mean that they have lost considerable ground. They were able to run a mile in 5 minutes and now they need 7. But we wouldn’t normally say, “Oh, Tom has fallen far behind, because he was doing a mile in 5 minutes and now he’s doing it in 4 minutes and 30 seconds (or still in 5 minutes).” We would say he hasn’t met his expectations, because he wanted to run a mile in 4 minutes. Saying kids have fallen far behind is a lot scarier than saying they haven’t made as much progress, or even saying they stayed even, in relationship to a previous year.
Setting aside the issue of manipulative language games, it’s possible that even the figures we have are overstating the so-called “loss.” If we keep in mind that we are measuring gains and losses by using standardized tests, it seems reasonable to assume that the results could have been affected by the challenges students were facing in their homes and communities, that is, some of this test “loss” could be an artifact of psychological strain. I mean, adults have talked about the “brain fog” that living in a pandemic appears to create. They complain about not being able to think as clearly. Why should we assume that children are immune from their own versions of “brain fog,” especially when they are living in communities that have suffered disproportionately during the pandemic, you know, the ones that have been called on to provide “essential workers,” often people of color?
When you think about it, given all that children have gone through, it’s somewhat curious that people would be focusing attention on standardized tests scores during a pandemic with numerous pressures on kids. Let’s give it a little time before we make pronouncements about grave amounts of “Learning Loss” based on these tests. A little charity is called for. But quite frankly, even in “normal” times, it’s absurd to put so much weight on test scores, especially for younger kids. Carol Burris, a High School Principal of the Year in New York, writes,
Here is the bottom line. There is no objective science by which we can predict future college readiness using grades 3-8 test scores. You can, at best make assumptions, based on correlations, with score thresholds that are capricious. To make college readiness predictions for 8-year-olds is absurd and unkind.
Later this week, New York children will face another round of testing, this time in mathematics. Thousands will opt out, while the majority will try their best. Their moms and dads will be disappointed by their low scores, which result from the machinations of the score setting process.
I suggest they do something worthwhile with the score reports when they get them in August — line the birdcage. Then parents should hug their kids and read them a great book, just for fun. It is time for the fools with the tools to move on.
The whole Learning Loss business reveals a deep misunderstanding about education. As John Erwing—who has been a professor at Dartmouth and Indiana, and past executive director of the American Mathematical Society—explains in “The Ridiculousness Of Learning Loss:”
But what’s it mean—”five months of learning loss”? What exactly is lost? Do students forget facts? Skills? Are memories erased? Can they find what’s lost? And what does “five months” mean? Yes, I know, it’s calculated from a mathematical formula, but formulas are only as good as the data and assumptions that go into them. Mathematics is not magic. What are the assumptions? What’s the data? Where does it come from? When people discuss learning loss, they generally don’t know the answers to any of these questions. And if the notion is so vague, how can it be so easily and precisely measured?
Of course, the term “learning loss” comes from the language of test enthusiasts. For them, learning is a substance that’s poured into students over time. One measures the accumulated substance by the number of correct answers on a test (standardized, usually multiple-choice). By administering two comparable tests at different moments in time, one measures success or failure for learning. An increase in correct responses is gain; a decrease is loss.
Learning loss is usually illustrated by the summer break. We are told that students experience about three months of loss each summer. Again, what’s this mean? If a student does more poorly on a test in September than in May, is learning really lost? Seems doubtful, or at least incomplete.
Oh, but now kids are suffering great Learning Loss, and their lives will ruined if they miss even a few weeks of school, for example, during the latest Omicron surge. But who really believes a few weeks would make a difference? If they did, then better not have any breaks, no Christmas or spring break, and especially no long summer one. Are they ready to argue for this? I doubt it. They tolerate standardized test “Learning Loss” every fall when kids return from their summer break.
Graduation: Stop the Gaslighting About Our Children
This whole business, the Mental Health Nightmare & the Learning Loss Terror, have been hyped during the pandemic, and we have to ask ourselves why. Who benefits?
Presumably some of the uncritical acceptance of the hype is due to a simple lack of information: people are unaware of how long and how deep the mental health crisis has been for kids, so they are ready for a simple fix, namely, get the kids back in school. And how can we criticize parents for worrying about Learning Loss when politicians, business leaders, and giant test companies keep pushing this line and scaring them to death? The fact is that these concerns just happen to dovetail with the desires of those screaming the loudest, businesses that want a return to “normal” profit margins and working parents who desperately need childcare. We can debate the merits of these motives, but what’s clear is that they are not about education.
Let’s stop falling for the bogus narratives we’re being fed about why schools absolutely must remain open during a terrible Covid surge for the sake of the children. They and their communities will be safer if schools in areas of high contagion, without access to proper mitigation measures, temporarily close. A few weeks is relatively meaningless when we are talking about almost two decades of schooling. There will be plenty of time to address the mental health and educational needs of children in the months and years to come, if our society cares to do so.
Update, January 13, 2022. Tyler Black, quoted above, aggregated data in a Twitter thread today that supports claims made in this article.
* And we are dealing with a very long-term trend:
Two new meta-analytic studies involving thousands of children and college students show that anxiety has increased substantially since the 1950’s. In fact, the studies find that anxiety has increased so much that typical schoolchildren during the 1980’s reported more anxiety than child psychiatric patients did during the 1950’s.
** The irony here is that it’s possible that kids being out of school helped keep down the total number of suicides. While there are many reasons why suicides might increase during a pandemic, we know that they decrease when young people aren’t in school.
Jonathan Singer, the president of the American Association of Suicidology and an author of Suicide in Schools, cautions against drawing a straight line between pandemic shutdowns and suicide rates among teenagers. He believes there were indeed teens and adolescents at higher risk from suicide last year, or who died by suicide, because they felt cut off from their friends, or were in an abusive home, or found a parent’s firearm. But other kids might actually have been protected from harm by being out of school, because “their stressors were in-school bullying, or being misgendered, or maybe access to substances through peers,” Singer told me. He pointed out that school attendance is itself a known risk factor for suicide, as rates have dipped consistently during the summer months and over winter break. “The Suicide Wave That Never Was.”
*** It’s worth mentioning another widely accepted narrative here: kids were in great distress during lockdowns, and God knows if they will recover. But this is not what some studies have shown.
At least four large-scale research studies, conducted in the Spring of 2020—two in the U.S., one in the U.K., and one in Norway–found that children’s mental health improved during the early months of the COVID-induced school closures. Collectively, they revealed that children and teens felt less anxious, less depressed, and psychologically stronger following lockdown than in the months prior. ( “Why children’s mental wellbeing improved during the early months of COVID lockdown.”)
I know. Shocking given the usual narratives. But there is also anecdotal evidence that many students did better, psychologically speaking, when they were not in school, even during a lockdown. (See, “Why some kids are happier right now, and other unexpected effects of quarantine.”) And it makes sense given how unhappy many children are in school. This is, of course, not an argument for preferring lockdowns. Needless to say, all lockdowns are not created equal, in terms of time and how well they are managed. My point here is that we shouldn’t accept narratives of immense damage without examining the evidence and considering different circumstances. Locking down for two weeks or a month or two months is not locking down for a year.
**** The report mentions, “patterns of missing data may mean that we have overestimated academic achievement and gains in 2020-21 compared to prior school years.” So it is possible that the test scores MAY be weaker. In any case, it’s important to keep sight of the fact that all of this is based on standardized test scores, with tests being taken during a pandemic. Learning is not confined to what these tests measure, as the authors of the NWEA report themselves point out, although I would argue that it’s a serious error to confine academic achievement to math and reading scores.
Academic achievement is only one dimension of students’ education, and these data alone cannot paint a complete picture of how young people fared this past year. For instance, our results cannot speak to the many ways students, families, and teachers have shown incredible resiliency and adaptability in the face of immense challenges that completely upended normal life. We look forward to learning from these bright spots in the coming months.
Covid Hot Spot Map of the U.S., for January 9, 2022, New York Times, Mapbox.