New study shows link between pandemic-induced stress and suicidality among high school students

Published: January 23, 2024

Pandemic-induced stress from job loss, food insecurity, abuse, and school issues were linked to an increase in suicidal thoughts and behaviors among youth during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a study from a team of researchers that included UTHealth Houston.

The findings were published recently in Preventive Medicine.  

A team led by Khandis Brewer, a PhD student at Georgia State University School of Public Health, explored the association between pandemic-related stress and suicidal thoughts and behaviors among adolescents by examining a nationally representative sample of high school students across the U.S. in spring 2021.

Dale Mantey, PhD, an assistant professor at UTHealth Houston School of Public Health in Austin, and Adam Alexander, PhD, an assistant professor at Oklahoma Health Science Center, were co-authors on the study. 

The research found that more than 90% of high school students faced some form of pandemic-induced stress, with approximately 6% experiencing five or more negative economic and social consequences of COVID-19, including: (1) parent job loss; (2) self-job loss; (3) food insecurity; (4) physical abuse during the pandemic; (5) emotional abuse during the pandemic; (6) increased difficulty at school; and (7) reduced connection to school.

“We saw severe increases in suicide among young people during the pandemic, but, to date, little research has identified why this increase occurred,” Mantey said. “Our study found a strong, consistent link between economic and social hardships of the pandemic and indicators of poor mental health among high school students.”

The study identified a direct correlation between the number of negative pandemic-related stressors and an increased risk of suicidal thoughts and behaviors, including persistent feelings of hopelessness (55% increased risk), suicidal ideations (48% increased risk), planned suicide attempts (47% increased risk), and suicide attempts (64% increased risk). Of note was the association between pandemic-stress and suicide attempts being significantly greater among males relative to females and non-Hispanic Black individuals relative to non-Hispanic White individuals.

“Sadly, what we found is that during the pandemic, male and LGBTQ+ adolescents seemed to struggle more with sadness and hopelessness, and suicidal thoughts and behaviors compared with their peers,” Alexander said. As the nation continues to address the massive mental health challenges created by the pandemic, we must identify and allocate resources to groups that may be vulnerable to adversity and uncertainty.”

As the nation navigates the aftermath of COVID-19, Brewer said prioritizing support and resources for vulnerable communities remains critical.

“The pandemic exacerbated mental health issues and magnified pre-existing problems for marginalized communities, Brewer said. “This underscores the urgent need to comprehend and address the pandemic’s enduring impact on groups such as LGBTQ+ and racial/ethnic minorities. Developing interventions focused on strengths and resilience is paramount to tackling these hardships and eradicating stigma.”