To Be a Student in 2023: 10 Teens Open Up About Mental Health, the Age of AI and the Long Shadow of the Pandemic

The Center on Reinventing Public Education鈥檚 Cara Pangelinan talked with older youth across the US to get a sense of their immediate recovery needs.


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This essay was originally published as part of the Center on Reinventing Public Education鈥檚 . As part of the effort, CRPE asked 14 experts from various sectors to offer up examples of innovations, solutions or possible paths forward as education leaders navigate the current crisis. Cara Pangelinan went straight to students to get their opinions 鈥 below are some of her key takeaways. (See our full essay series

Kesar Gaba, a rising sophomore at Queens College, was in high school when the pandemic hit. 

鈥淎ll I saw for two years was black screens on Zoom. It affected my mental health, it affected my relationships within my family, and it really overall affected the way I see the world.鈥 

Arshia Papari, a rising freshman at the University of Texas at Austin, had a slightly different attitude toward online schooling compared to Kesar. 

鈥淲hat the pandemic did for me was that it really opened me up to a new opportunity in schooling, but it also took away the ability for me to do any sort of in-person connections and have a real high school experience. But I think it鈥檚 been a trade-off between the experiences you have during high school and also the convenience of online schooling.鈥

Many students had similar experiences during the pandemic. Whether they enjoyed online schooling or not, these stories have been published dozens of times in varying news outlets and reflected in student surveys. But older students in particular had less time to catch up before leaving the school system, creating concerns as to whether they had ample support emerging from the pandemic. 

We at CRPE were interested in learning about these students鈥 current hopes, fears, and ideas for how to strengthen the U.S. education system. To that end, we spoke with 10 older youth鈥 that is, high schoolers nearing graduation or students who have already graduated鈥攖o get their perspective on the data in our report as well as on life as an American teenager, their take on rising mental illness rates among peers their age, and what it would take to change the current education system.

Why the kids are not all right

鈥淚f the world around you is giving you stimuli that the world is falling apart or the world鈥檚 on fire, and that repeats every day on TikTok or on YouTube … I think that鈥檚 what鈥檚 leading to the [rising mental health problems] trend of going up, up, up, and up.鈥 鈥揂rshia Papari, rising freshman, The University of Texas at Austin

By now, it is common knowledge that students鈥 mental illness rates are, and have been, worsening. The pandemic is often blamed. In reality, the pandemic is just part of a bigger picture. Students had concerns around their well-being and safety鈥攂oth inside and outside of schools鈥攍ong before Covid-19. The pandemic just created an opportunity to bring these issues to light.

鈥淚 feel like the pandemic gave us this gateway to just talk about [feelings of helplessness and depression] in a more normalized setting. This has been a problem for some time, but I don鈥檛 think that it鈥檚 just because the pandemic happened.鈥 鈥揂bigail Singh, rising freshman, Bennington College, Vermont

Students had a lot to say about what they believe is contributing to these rising trends. 

First and foremost, these students are concerned about their safety and security in schools, physically and emotionally. They named political and cultural tensions 鈥 Title IX scandals, bans on Pride flags, anti-trans legislation, and reckless gun violence, among others 鈥 as harmful to their wellbeing. Even if these events were not happening in their schools or didn鈥檛 affect them directly, these issues still impact the mental health of the COVID generation. 

Lazuli Clark, a transgender female student, remarked on how difficult it can be to focus on school when some policymakers are passing laws against her identity.

鈥淕oing to school is the least of people鈥檚 concerns at this point for a lot of people. There are days where I鈥檓 like, oh yeah, I have to worry about my AP U.S. history project and yesterday another state basically made it so that I can never exist in that state. And it鈥檚 like, how鈥檚 anyone supposed to think about anything at all when there鈥檚 all of that going on? Even if you鈥檙e not directly impacted by it. Most people in my generation know somebody who鈥檚 impacted in one way or the other.鈥

Other students felt vulnerable in their own communities. Liv Birnstad, a recent graduate from a public charter school in Washington, D.C., explained how school resource officers (SROs) were meant to be replaced with mental health professionals in school buildings:

鈥淏ut what ended up happening is they took [SROs] away and then didn鈥檛 replace them [with mental health professionals]. And so now they鈥檙e putting [SROs] back into schools because they thought that the problem was that we didn鈥檛 have SROs. But the real problem is that we didn鈥檛 have inter-community support. At my school we have school resource officers, but we also have a lot of police. And so a lot of students feel really uncomfortable receiving support at school because it feels like a really kind of carceral space.鈥

Liv is not alone. Arivumani Srivastava, who attended a high school in rural Kentucky, described a similar initiative in his state as a 鈥済ive-and-take鈥 bill. After the Marshall County High School shooting, the bill mandated a mental health professional be present in schools, but also required a certain number of police officers on campuses. Similarly, Abigail Singh, a graduate of a charter school in Brooklyn, New York, described how it felt to go through scanners at school meant to check for weapons: 鈥淚t just makes us all feel villainized.鈥

The students made it clear that in-school mental health supports are not enough to improve their well-being. First, they need to feel safe enough to use these supports.

鈥淚f students aren鈥檛 able to freely explore themselves in a safe and supported way in schools, then all they鈥檙e doing is looking at a future where they鈥檒l have less guidance and probably equal, if not more scrutiny. And so it makes sense for me that they would be hopeless or sad.鈥 鈥揓aylen Adams, rising freshman, Columbia University, New York

鈥淚 feel like mental health is something that we鈥檙e still growing in society. We鈥檙e advocating on [it] because it is a really big issue that students face. And if it鈥檚 not tackled, it just keeps becoming an issue and it could lead to more severe factors on a student鈥檚 life. It鈥檚 just something that needs to continue to be touched upon in a school setting.鈥 鈥揂lejandro Blanco, rising sophomore, University of Illinois at UrbanaChampaign

Social media: A double-edged sword

We cannot underestimate the influence social media platforms and apps have on youth. For instance, Georgia鈥檚 Brady Phan benefited from school closures. He used the free time during lockdown to reflect on his goals and double down on his academic aspirations. But he also saw how school closures adversely affected many of his peers, especially those who were drawn to influential people on social media.

鈥淎 lot of these entrepreneurs [on social media] are saying that you should not go to college, that there鈥檚 a lot of easier ways to make money. And especially during the pandemic where they鈥檙e the most vulnerable鈥搕hat鈥檚 where I see them influence [youth] a lot. And that would maybe change [my peers鈥橾 minds about pursuing or excelling in an academic career.鈥 鈥揃rady Phan, rising senior, DeKalb County School District, Georgia

鈥淲e saw a lot more people who were more radicalized [during the pandemic]. They鈥檇 fallen down certain rabbit holes because they were just like locked up on their own. And they also lost a lot of empathy because, well, we gain empathy by talking to people who are different from us. But if you鈥檙e just alone for a year, a year and a half, two years, then you do tend to lose that sense of compassion for people who are different than you.鈥 鈥揗aya Murali, rising senior, Lewisville Independent School District, Texas

While there is ample evidence of the harmful effects of social media, including the spread of misinformation, the students also highlighted the opportunities these platforms provide. Abigail Singh, for example, has an interest in social justice and wants to pursue a career in journalism. In her eyes, social media is a powerful tool for advocacy.

鈥淏eing someone with so many intersectional identities, it鈥檚 hard to find a community where I feel represented and exist. And so social media is definitely somewhere where I feel like I鈥檝e been given the platform to help other students like me.鈥 鈥揂bigail Singh, rising freshman, Bennington College, Vermont

Liv sees a similar opportunity. As someone who attended a small school and identifies as Jewish and queer, she praised social media for helping connect her to like-minded peers. It is a 鈥渞eminder that there鈥檚 life outside of [school] … social media can kind of help you find your niche group when you don鈥檛 have access at a school.鈥 

While there is cause to be wary of harmful users who can influence youth negatively, the benefits social media bestows are also notable. For teenagers like Abigail, Liv, and others who use these platforms to connect to one another and find community where they may not otherwise have the opportunity to do so, social media can be enlightening.

鈥淚 definitely think that social media helps in addition to the ways it harms. It definitely is harmful and I don鈥檛 want to understate that, but I also really feel like that the way social media is reported about overshadows the good that it can do.鈥 鈥揂rivumani Srivastava, rising sophomore, Pomona College, California

Ideas for the future of education

Although youth have serious concerns about deteriorating mental health and social conflicts, they are also optimistic about how schooling can be improved. They are especially intrigued about the potential of AI and peer mentoring.

Similar to social media, students acknowledge how AI can be harmful for those that rely too much on technology like ChatGPT. Rather than dwelling on these concerns, however, students were more excited to share the possibilities it can offer.

鈥淚 think the education system as a whole is concerned more about how [ChatGPT] can be used for cheating and not really seeing it for what it can be, which is a really powerful tool.鈥 鈥揗aya Murali, rising senior, Lewisville Independent School District, Texas

鈥淚 hope that things like ChatGPT and text-to-speech [tools] can continue to advance in a way that provides more accessibility for people. As someone who is not neurotypical, a lot of times I do benefit from different approaches to how lessons are taught, and it can be a lot of work for a teacher to have to create multiple different ways for something to be taught. So if we can find a way for artificial intelligence to be used in terms of accessibility, it鈥檒l be a lot less work on the behalf of the teacher and the student.鈥 鈥揕azuli Clark, rising senior, KIPP Academy Lynn Collegiate, Massachusetts

Other students also commented on how they use ChatGPT to compare their own writing to it, or as a jumping-off point for assignments. But they warned that AI cannot be the end-all be-all. As one student put it, 鈥淵ou still need to know what you鈥檙e doing. You need to be able to think critically and be able to edit essays or whatever it鈥檚 generating for you.鈥

Students also want schools to provide more mentoring support and help navigating college and career pathways.

鈥淸Having] a set structure in schools to just have one-on-one talks with each student: see where they鈥檙e at, see how they鈥檙e feeling, what they want to pursue. Just have that intensive nature to each student to make sure they鈥檙e feeling heard, they鈥檙e feeling shown attention. And I feel like that鈥檚 really helpful, especially in a high school setting where there鈥檚 a lot of kids and being heard goes a long way.鈥 鈥揂lejandro Blanco, rising sophomore, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Illinois

When we asked students what they found to be most helpful in considering postsecondary options, nearly all of them mentioned talking with an older peer or adult. For instance, Jaylen will be attending Columbia University this fall on a full scholarship. But she was no expert at the college application process. Instead, she relied on help from various college readiness programs to research the application, financial aid, and negotiation processes. Brady, who wants to study computer science at Georgia Tech, has been getting advice about the admissions process from his football coach (an alumni) and his uncle (a current student).

Continuing the conversation

The students also spoke of the increasing external pressure they feel for their generation to attend college, rectify key issues like climate change, and generally 鈥渄o well.鈥 If we put expectations like these onto youth, it鈥檚 only fair that we also provide the necessary supports for them to succeed.

Bottom line: educators must listen to students now more than ever. As they are currently navigating the educational system, they have the best understanding of its strengths, and more importantly, what it still lacks. Older youth who were forced out of the education system during a global health crisis were especially vulnerable to its flaws. They deserve better. They want to be heard. And they expect adults to act on their advice.

鈥淚鈥檓 on the DC State Board of Education, and they were so excited to have student members of the board. My first term, we couldn鈥檛 get anything done. I鈥檇 ask [for help] at public meetings and instead of even saying no, they just would not respond. Everyone would just go silent for a minute and move on. I give 10 hours a week, I鈥檓 on two committees of the board, and they can鈥檛 even listen to me.鈥 鈥揕iv Birnstad, rising freshman, Harvard University, Massachusetts

鈥淚t feels like a lot more people want to hear what [students] say, but even though they hear what we say, that doesn鈥檛 mean they take it into account at all. It really feels like they just said, 鈥極h we listened to the kids but they鈥檙e young, they鈥檙e stupid, they don鈥檛 know.鈥 So we鈥檒l just add it as an appendix to what we鈥檙e doing and then move on with what we think. And I guess that鈥檚 just really infuriating to me because I feel like I鈥檇 rather just not be listened to than to be tokenized.鈥 鈥揂rivumani Srivastava, rising sophomore, Pomona College, California

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