Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey (ABES)

CDC released new data from the Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey (ABES) highlighting the magnitude of the challenges our nation’s youth faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a seismic effect on communities across the country, and young people have been especially impacted by the ways in which their everyday lives have been altered. The disruptions were widespread – school buildings closed, opportunities for connecting with peers were limited, communities were dealing with loss and upheaval.

While the pandemic has affected all students, the experiences of disruption and adversity have not affected all students equally.

Male student learning via laptop at home

Many populations that experienced more inequity before the pandemic also had greater risks during the COVID-19 pandemic related to mental health, suicide, substance use, abuse, and racism.

ABES Findings

Adolescents Are Experiencing a Mental Health Crisis

  • More than 1 in 3 high school students experienced poor mental health during the pandemic and nearly half of students felt persistently sad or hopeless.
  • Female students and those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, other or questioning (LGBQ) are experiencing disproportionate levels of poor mental health and suicide-related behaviors. For example, in 2021, 12% of female students, more than 25% of LGB students, and 17% of other or questioning students attempted suicide during the past year compared to 5% of their male peers and 5% of their heterosexual peers, respectively.

Daily Life Was Disrupted

  • The range of impacts on youth’s daily lives was broad – including difficulties, family economic impacts, hunger, and abuse in the home.
  • More than half of students experienced emotional abuse in the home and more than 10% reported physical abuse in the home.
  • Lesbian, gay, and bisexual students were far more likely to report physical abuse, with 20% reporting that they had been physically abused by a parent or other adult in their home, compared to 10% of heterosexual students.
  • Black students were most likely to report hunger, with nearly a third reporting that there was not enough food in their home during the pandemic.
Racism Is a Public Health Problem
  • More than one third of all U.S. high school students felt they had been treated badly or unfairly at school because of their race or ethnicity.
  • Asian, Black, and Multiracial students reported the highest levels of experiencing racism.
  • Students who reported racism were also more likely to experience poor mental health and less likely to feel connected to people at school.

What Can Be Done

Connectedness Protects Youth

Middle School Students sitting in grass studying

The ABES data showed that youth who felt more connected to people at their schools had better mental health; however, young people who experienced racism were less likely to benefit from this protection. More must be done to ensure that schools provide a safe and supportive where all students feel connected to people who care, so that all students can fully benefit from the protections connectedness provides.

CDC’s “What Works In Schools” Approach Improves the Health and Well-Being of Youth

high school students standing

Schools serve as a critical venue to provide support. The CDC “What Works In Schools” approach to primary prevention in local school districts improves health education, connects youth to the services they need, and creates safer and more supportive school environments. This approach has demonstrated positive impacts on substance use, sexual risk, and experience of violence among students in schools that implement it.

In addition, the What Works In Schools approach has a positive impact on mental health among all students when schools implement policies and practices, such as gender and sexuality alliances, anti-harassment policies, and training for educators on inclusivity, that are designed to support LGBTQ youth.

About ABES

The Adolescent Behaviors and Experiences Survey (ABES) was a one-time survey. It was the first nationally representative look at the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the health of our nation’s youth.

It was funded through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Findings are detailed in five articles in the MMWR Surveillance Supplement.

ABES was a 110-question online survey completed by US high school students in early-mid 2021. ABES found that the COVID-19 pandemic affected youth in a number of areas.