Lingering Mental Health Challenges Are Affecting Gen Z in the Classroom

teen girl holding her head in her hands

Carol Yepes / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • More than 50% of students ages 18 to 25 say their mental health is the same or worse than last year.
  • Mental health impacts students’ learning in the classroom.
  • Many schools have resources to help students with their mental health, but students don’t take advantage of those resources.

The vast majority of schools returned to in-person learning this year. Experts nationwide believed that businesses and travel opening up, returning to face-to-face learning, and lessening COVID restrictions would improve kids’ mental health. But according to a new survey focused on the mental health of Gen Z students, so far, this hasn't been the case.

“The timing is perhaps surprising that we haven’t seen the improvement we might have hoped for with the return to in-person learning, and then relative normalization of activities. You have to remember just how bad things have gotten [during the pandemic],” states David A. Merrill, MD, PhD, psychiatrist and director of the Pacific Neuroscience Institute’s Pacific Brain Health Center at Providence Saint John’s Health Center.

Isolation, being disconnected socially, persistent COVID safety restrictions, and the stress of everyday life still severely impact adolescents. The survey, put together by Quizlet, a learning platform, found that 57% of the respondents said their mental health was the same or even worse than last school year.

Despite attempts to return to life as we knew it before the pandemic hit, mental health is still a
challenge for Gen Z students. Mental health issues impact their learning and educational process. The study findings highlight the need to understand the problems adolescents are facing, and the need to provide mental health treatment and resources for them.

The Mental Health Concerns of Gen Z

Generation Z, or Gen Z, refers to individuals born between the years of 1997 to 2012. Quizlet focused their survey on this age group, gathering data on more than 1000 students ages 18 to 25 years old. The online survey was given to students in the United States in April 2022.

The survey produced some sobering results regarding kids’ mental health. It showed that the impact of the COVID pandemic still lingers. More than 60% of the participants said they deal with anxiety, while 47% have issues with depression. Loneliness is a problem for 49% of the youth, and 55% struggle with feeling overwhelmed.

Diana Cusumano, LMHC

Research has consistently shown that mental health challenges are associated with lower academic performance.

— Diana Cusumano, LMHC

Those challenges are taking a toll on Gen Z’s educational experience, with 95% saying mental health affects their schoolwork. Almost 90% of students doing remote learning say their mental health affects their studies. Almost 80% of students who are attending classes in person say their mental health impacts their schoolwork. While being in-person does help students, it’s not enough. Mental health challenges still impact learning, no matter the environment.

“Research has consistently shown that mental health challenges are associated with lower academic performance,” explains Diana Cusumano, LMHC, Director of JED Campus and Wellness Initiatives. “Experiencing mental health challenges increases the likelihood that students may miss class, may fail some exams or miss assignments and can make it harder for students to follow school routines,” she notes.

More than 50% of public schools say they have mental health assessment programs for students. Many schools also have resources available to help students cope. But according to the survey, almost half of those that responded have not taken advantage of any mental health assistance at their school. Their studies continue to suffer.

“When students are struggling with a mental health issue, it compromises their ability to take in and process new ideas while they are in the classroom,” adds Cusumano.

There are resources. Students are struggling. But more needs to be done to help them make the connection and help this generation care for their mental health. 

Finding Solutions

Being aware of circumstances that add to the stress and concern students have is a step in the right direction. The impact of social distancing and a lack of togetherness is a good place to start.

“We know that disconnection is a major risk factor for anxiety, depression, struggling in general with mental well-being,” states Dr. Merrill.

The stress of academics, pressure to perform athletically, emerging COVID-19 variants, international conflict, politics, family situations, and a host of other factors play a part in the tension students are feeling. Parents, friends, and family need to know what signs to look out for to know when someone is struggling mentally.

“Parents should pay attention to any noticeable changes in their child’s behavior, including sleep patterns, speech, appetite and diet, fluctuating moods and emotions, how they dress or take care of their physical appearance, whether they seem more tired or irritable than usual and if they are suddenly struggling at school,” notes Cusumano. 

David A. Merrill, MD

There really is no separation between mental health and physical health.

— David A. Merrill, MD

What do you do when you see the signs? Seek out resources. Your child’s school, therapists, and support groups can help. Meditation apps and mindfulness exercises can be beneficial. There are also ways to counter some of the negative impact mental health problems have on learning. Those can include the least likely answer—taking a break from it all.

“I recommend making time to do other activities that you enjoy, especially when life feels hectic. For example, I like playing music, singing, drawing, and doing puzzles when I want to take a break from the daily grind. I also recommend surrounding yourself with people that will bring out the best in you, support you and be there for you,” states Kalyany Steele, Quizlet Ambassador and Gymnast at UCLA.

Ultimately, taking care of your mental health should be no different than going to the doctor for your annual checkup.

“There really is no separation between mental health and physical health," Dr. Merrill concludes. “The two go hand in hand.”

What This Means For You

Mental health impacts everything we do. It deserves the same attention and support that you would give to any part of your body. Be aware of the impact of your mental health on other areas of your life. Don’t be afraid to ask for help if you need it.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Institute of Education Sciences. NAEP 2022 learning mode, masking, and social distancing dashboard.

  2. Gallup. Amid pandemic, 79% of k-12 parents support in-person school.

  3. Quizlet. Quizlet survey reveals the state of mental health and the modern learner.

  4. National Center for Education Statistics. Spotlight 1: Prevalence of mental health services provided by public schools and limitations in schools' efforts to provide mental health services.