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Teens faced emotional abuse at home during the pandemic, CDC finds

More than half of high school students said they were victims of verbal outbursts during lockdown, according to a new CDC survey.

A majority of teenagers say they endured insults, put-downs and other forms of emotional abuse from a parent or other adult at home during the height of the pandemic lockdown in 2020, according to a survey released Thursday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The findings offer a stark appraisal of how high school students have fared during the pandemic. 

"These data echo a cry for help," Dr. Debra Houry, the CDC's acting principal deputy director, said in a statement. "The COVID-19 pandemic has created traumatic stressors that have the potential to further erode students' mental wellbeing."

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In a call with reporters Thursday, Kathleen Ethier, director of the CDC's Division of Adolescent and School Health, said the survey results underscored "the degree to which families were experiencing stress" during the pandemic.

"Our data make it clear that young people experienced significant disruption and adversity during the pandemic and are experiencing a mental health crisis," Ethier said.

The survey findings, which were published as a series of reports Thursday, are based on the responses of a group of 7,705 nationally representative high school students. Participants were asked to complete the Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey in the first half of 2021, though the questions asked about experiences from the previous year, 2020.

In general, 66 percent found it difficult to complete their schoolwork during the pandemic. 

More than half of the high school students — 55 percent — said they were on the receiving end of cursing or other verbal insults from an adult in the home during pandemic lockdown. Nearly three-quarters of those students identified as lesbian, gay or bisexual, and 63 percent were young women.

More than 1 in 10, or 11.3 percent, said they suffered physical abuse, such as hitting, beating or kicking.

It remains unclear how significant a role lockdown played in such reports. "There is no way to know specifically whether our findings reflect something new due to the pandemic or existing levels of abuse from prior to the pandemic," Ethier said.

Ariana Hoet, a pediatric psychologist, noted that caregivers, including parents, were also very stressed during the pandemic, and that may have resulted in verbal and emotional outbursts within the home.

"This study gives a voice to children, and shows a little bit of what we've been seeing in clinic," said Hoet, who is also the clinical director of On Our Sleeves, a national program that aims to reduce stigma around children’s mental health. "We know that kids — especially teens — can feel parents' stress."

A separate CDC study released in February found that mental health issues among American youth were increasing even before the pandemic.

From 2013 through 2019, that report found, 1 in 5 teenagers had at some point experienced an episode of major depression: unshakeable and worrisome feelings of sadness and hopelessness lasting for at least two weeks.

The CDC report published Thursday found that 44 percent of students said that during the previous year, they felt an ongoing sense of hopelessness, so much so that they were unable to engage in regular activities, Ethier said.

Nearly 20 percent had seriously thought about dying by suicide.

Drugs, alcohol and vaping

The survey also asked students about their drug use during the pandemic. Nearly a third, 31.6 percent, said they had experimented with some kind of drug, including nicotine, or alcohol.

About 1 in 3 said their use of such substances increased during the pandemic — perhaps mirroring worrisome trends also observed among adults in lockdown.

Nearly 20 percent of surveyed teens said they drank alcohol, and just over 15 percent reported using e-cigarettes.

Vaping and marijuana use were more prevalent than use of painkillers and cigarettes, the survey found.

Overall reports of substance use and misuse were more prevalent among older teens and those in largely marginalized groups, including American Indian students and those identifying as gay, lesbian or bisexual.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources.

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