Savannah Guthrie Went Back to Her High School to Discover the True Toll of the Pandemic on Teen Mental Health

The TODAY co-anchor shared the details of "Kids Under Pressure," an NBC News cross-network series that looks at the toll the pandemic is taking on high school students and what it means to her as a parent.

An image of Savannah Guthrie on a colorful background.
Photo: Getty Images (1). Art: Jillian Sellers.

As the U.S. looks back on what has now been a full year of living through a pandemic, it's clear that the crisis has taken a major mental health toll on kids. To get a clearer perspective on exactly how teens, in particular, are feeling, NBC News partnered with Challenge Success, a non-profit associated with Stanford's Graduate School of Education, to survey thousands of students for a cross-network series called "Kids Under Pressure." TODAY co-anchor Savannah Guthrie shared the top takeaways on the show on Tuesday and sat down with students from her alma mater Amphitheater Public School in Tucson, Arizona.

We caught up with Guthrie, who offered insight on the survey's key points, what the findings mean to her as a parent, and the greatest takeaway for parents.

The Main Findings From the Survey

Guthrie explains that the survey, which is currently the largest on how the pandemic has affected high school students' mental health, actually began prior to the global crisis. "We were interested in kids under stress, and then the pandemic hit, and what's really interesting is that some was conducted before and some after, and that opens a window into how COVID has affected students," she explains.

The survey found that high school kids are more stressed out (56 percent report an increase). And 41 percent say their effort and engagement with learning has decreased.

When you talk to girls, you see how much they internalize. They felt a lot of pressure to be better, perfect.

The impact is affecting girls, minority students, and kids in less well-resourced schools disproportionately.

  • 63 percent of females say they're experiencing school-related stress versus 48 percent of males.
  • 83 percent report having at least one stress-related physical health symptom, and it's worse for girls: 92 percent for females versus 72 percent for males.
  • 63 percent of Black and Hispanic/Latinx students vs. 55 percent of white students report school-related stress.

The reasons, according to Guthrie? "When you talk to girls, you see how much they internalize," she notes. "They felt a lot of pressure to be better, perfect, to get good grades. They feel all the social pressures, they feel the sadness of those opportunities that are lost."

Girls and Stress roundtable NBC News
NBC News

And students in lower income communities might be dealing with parents who are out of a job or parents who are essential workers, says Guthrie. "COVID has ravaged those communities more than others, and we talked to kids who had experienced that," she explains. "Unfortunately, all the inequities that we knew existed are exacerbated."

The survey also found that:

  • 32 percent of students report mental health as a major source of stress versus 26 percent before COVID.
  • Just 35 percent of students report they are quite or very confident in their ability to cope with stress, similar to levels seen before pandemic.
  • 50 percent say their sense of belonging and relationships with teachers and peers has decreased.

And while the amount of work high schoolers are expected to do is often hefty, 51 percent of kids reported their time spent on schoolwork is up and that the lines between homework and schoolwork are blurred.

Guthrie describes what that might look like for teens: "[They] are listening to lectures eight hours a day [online] and then have a pile of homework, which is also often on the computer, so it's hard to stay focused—even for the best students. A lot of them said they felt like they were procrastinating. They wanted to get away from their room and their computer after school, but then, they would delay their homework until late at night, and they'd be up all night."

How Savannah Sees the Findings as a Mom

Guthrie says her children Vale, 6, and Charley, 4, might be little, but they're aware of the pandemic. "At their age, we don't hide from this topic, but I try to talk about it in a way they can understand," says the TODAY co-host. "We say our prayers at night, and we pray for the world to be well and for the coronavirus to go away."

On the other hand, "high schoolers can have really sophisticated conversations about what the pandemic means, what this whole period of time means, and—I think what really strikes me is—they really want to talk," says Guthrie. "They want to be understood. A lot of them said they want the adults in their lives—the teachers, the parents, the grownups—to know that they really are trying, but that this has been hard on them."

What Parents Can Do

Although Guthrie shares how "impressive, diligent, hardworking, strong, and resilient" high school students are, her interviews with them quickly revealed the anxieties and fears they're grappling with and need adults to recognize. "If you ask them, then they'll start to reveal, 'I wonder if I'll be able to go to my senior dance' or 'Is there going to be a graduation where I can say goodbye to my friends?'" she notes.

Talking to our kids is something we can all do. We're all equipped to do that.

Others shared that while they're craving connection, picking up the phone to make a phone or FaceTime call might feel like too much. In turn, they've lost friendships and bonds, which is contributing to their stress.

When asked by Guthrie what the adults in their lives can do to make this uphill battle a bit less grueling, the message the anchor heard "loud and clear" from teens was that "they just want to be understood."

"They just want their parents to know they really are trying as hard as they can," she shares. "If you can talk to your kids, and they feel like they can talk to you about anything, you're ahead of the game. Just keeping that line of communication open makes a huge difference. It takes the pressure off to be able to express yourself and to be understood and have a sympathetic ear."

Guthrie sees teens' simple need as "really hopeful." "It doesn't take away the work from them, but in some ways, it lightens the load," she says. "Talking to our kids is something we can all do. We're all equipped to do that."

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