LISTEN: Two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, data is showing the effects on the mental health of the state’s children. In a new report, students talked about their experiences firsthand. GPB’s Ellen Eldridge reports. 

Boy at a school desk reading with a hand on his head and a pencil in his right hand

For years prior to the pandemic, Georgia struggled to meet the mental health needs of children and youth. Two in five children aged 3 to 17 have trouble accessing the mental health treatment and counseling they need.

Credit: RODNAE Productions / Pexels

Everything changed for students across Georgia in March 2020 when Gov. Brian Kemp issued a state of emergency that effectively shut down the state.

Kemp signed Executive Order closing all public elementary, secondary, and post-secondary public schools in Georgia from March 18, 2020, to March 31, 2020.

Some students left book bags and other personal items at school; they had to return in the following weeks to retrieve their property.

No one knew when things would return to "normal."

SARS-CoV-2, a novel virus that no one knew anything about, was circulating. Health leaders believed that, if everyone stayed home for just 14 days, we could slow the spread of the coronavirus.

Now, COVID-19 is virtually endemic. Strains continue to mutate and booster shots evolve.

More than 3,500 Georgians died from COVID-19, and the state has so far seen more than 2.8 million cases of the infection.

Time froze for some students during quarantine. Many lower-income families did not have access to laptops and internet, especially in families with multiple children. Students who spent the least amount of time learning remotely during the 2020-21 school year — just a month or less — missed the equivalent of seven to 10 weeks of math learning, said Thomas Kane of the Center for Education Policy Research at Harvard University.

Students who were in elementary school when the pandemic hit fared worse than those who were in middle school, according to research from Georgia State University. Students in two grades showed math declines of over 15 percentile points in national rankings between fall 2019 and fall 2021.

And "normal" never returned to what it once was.


Demand for mental health services

During the 2018-2019 school year, nearly 80,000 Georgia students in sixth through 12th grade reported having seriously considered attempting suicide.

That was before the pandemic hit. Now, it's worse.

In 2021, 14% more Georgia students reported feeling depressed and 16% more students experienced intense anxiety, when compared to 2019, according to a new report from Voices for Georgia's Children.

The Youth Behavioral Health in Georgia Two Years into the COVID-19 Pandemic report compiles the perceptions shared by caregivers and youth that participated in focus groups in early 2022.

"What we did was focus groups with caregivers in youth ages 12 to 18 to understand the impact of the pandemic on mental health and specifically for youth," Voices' Senior Policy Analyst Brittany Newton said. "We learned a number of things from this report, but what really stands out is this stigma is a major barrier to seeking and receiving behavioral health services, particularly among adolescent males and Black, Latin and first-generation American youth."


Newton said schools are really viewed by both caregivers and youth as a hub to receive services. And, if the school is not in a position to provide services directly, then, at minimum, serve as the connector to local services and supports, she said.

In Georgia, two in five children have trouble accessing the mental health treatment they need. That could be changing, though.

"The Mental Health Parity Act has laid a really good foundation for making meaningful change in our state, specifically with making sure that mental health coverage is care is reimbursed, just like physical health coverage," Newton said.

Addressing workforce shortages and workforce behavior would help pinpoint communities that are lagging providers and better allocate resources, she added.


Demands of catching up at school

Voices' qualitative information about how Georgia's children are doing with their mental health is mirrored by findings from the state's annual Georgia Student Health Survey.

"And, consistently, the top reason for suicidal ideation was always family reasons," Voices' Research and Policy Director Melissa Haberlen DeWolf said.

But then what was so interesting, DeWof said, was that, in 2022, the second reason for considering suicide was the demands of school, which was also reflected in interviews with young people through focus groups.

"That really rose to be higher in the reasons for suicidal ideation among kids," DeWolf said. "And I think that is directly related to the increased demands of having to catch up."

Newton added that the state recently allocated funding to the Georgia Department of Education to provide support grants for start-up funding for school-based health services.

Those programs are comprehensive in that they provide behavioral health vision services within schools, she said.