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Spotlight on Youth Mental Well-Being in Military Families


Edited by: Anna Peterson

Written by: Karen Shirer, Ph.D.

The popular media continues to draw attention to the national mental well-being crisis among children and youth, including those in military families. The CBS television station affiliate in Minnesota, WCCO-4, recently aired a three-part series on the pandemic’s impact on youth mental health. The reporter, Esme Murphy, interviewed the following national experts on youth development regarding the crisis:

  • Doctor Sarah Jerstad, the medical director of Outpatient Mental Health Services at Children's Hospital in Minnesota
  • Professor Jodi Dworkin of the University of Minnesota, a nationally known expert on youth’s social media use
  • Doctor Sara Polley, the director of the youth continuum at Hazelden Betty Ford

The three-part series provides a snapshot of the effects of the pandemic on children's and youths’ mental health. Extension professionals will learn key facts from this series on all children and youth; it is not exclusive to military-connected youth. For a deeper dive into military-connected youth, see the OneOp blog post by Dr. Jennifer Rea, The Military Teen Experience 2022: Military Teens Need Well-Being Support.

Youth Mental Well-Being Declined During the Pandemic

Ms. Murphy framed the issue of youth mental well-being with data from the Minnesota Student Survey, conducted in schools every three years. In 2022, 135,000 5th, 6th, and 11th-grade students completed the survey. Researchers found:

  • 29% of students reported poorer mental health lasting over six months, up from 23% in 2019.
  • 43% of all students worried “a lot” over the prior month; 48% sometimes felt sad and often didn’t know why.
  • 45% of girls reported long-term problems with mental health, up from 35% in 2019. The girls’ rate was twice the rate of boys.

In her interview, Dr. Jerstad stated that counselors continue seeing more children and youth with mental health challenges. Teenagers show higher rates of depression and anxiety than younger children. However, younger children are exhibiting more problematic behaviors like acting out and bullying. These increases started before the pandemic, which also accelerated rates.

Parents and Families Also Face Challenges

Families nationally continue to experience more stress. Dr. Polley described that many children and youth lost their families' support because of it. For example, parents had their own mental health challenges, often made worse by economic hardships. Both kids and adults in families need support with their mental well-being.

Girls and Boys Respond Differently

Girls and boys respond differently to poor mental health. Dr. Jerstad noted that girls show more withdrawal and sadness when depressed. Boys tend to be irritable or angry. Parents, caregivers and providers often struggle with figuring out if these behaviors are typical for adolescents or something more. Girls, in general, often show more willingness to seek help for their mental health needs than boys.

The pandemic delayed youths’ and children’s social and emotional development. As a result, Dr. Polley noted that many are having difficulty managing their emotions and anxiety. Some youth turned to substances to cope. Further, a group of these youth were using more than one substance (eg., an eating disorder along with alcohol use).

Adults in Youths’ Lives Provide a First Line of Support

Schools, youth development programs, and primary care form the first line of support for children and youth's mental well-being. This is especially true with a shortage of mental health care providers across the United States.

Dr. Jerstad recommended that parents connect with children’s teachers, coaches, and school guidance counselors, as well as their primary care providers. They can help to identify and support children and youth experiencing mental health challenges.

Youths’ Use of Devices Changed Due to the Pandemic

Cell phones and computers became a critical link to friends and schooling, resulting in increased screen time. Dr. Dworkin said youths’ increased usage had both positives and negatives. On the plus side, youth were able to connect with friends and continue their academic pursuits. But parents and caregivers continue to struggle with limiting and monitoring their children’s device usage. You can learn more about this topic from Dr. Dworkin’s 2022 OneOp blog post, Teen Technology Use and How COVID has Changed It.

Going Further

We encourage Extension professionals to view the video interviews on the WCCO website. You’ll also find tips for families and professionals on supporting kids’ mental well-being.

Plan to participate in our educational opportunities:

  • OneOp 4-part webinar series, Military Youth: Protecting and Promoting Resilience and Well-Being! The series will focus on protecting and promoting military-connected youths’ well-being and resilience.
  • Military Culture: A Guide for Extension Professionals. Cooperative Extension has an untapped opportunity to serve families in the military with our practical, applicable education as members of the communities in which they live, work, and play. Cooperative Extension can meet the needs of the military community by sharing its knowledge and bringing value to build the skills and practices of families in the military.


Dworkin, J. (2022, January 15). Teen technology use and how COVID has changed it. OneOp.

Minnesota Department of Health. (2023, January 12). Minnesota Student Survey.

Murphy, E. [Reporter]. (2023, March 1). Talking Points: Pandemic's toll on youth mental health. WCCO-4 CBS News.

Rea, J. (2023, April 8). The Military Teen Experience 2022: Military teens need well-being support. OneOp.

Anna Peterson, Program Coordinator, OneOp Family Transitions

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This technology is supported in part by New Technologies for Ag Extension (funding opportunity no. USDA-NIFA-OP-010186), grant no. 2023-41595-41325 from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture. Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or the Extension Foundation. For more information, please visit You can view the terms of useat

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