The coronavirus pandemic put the world on standstill, leaving everyone no matter age, race, gender or beliefs unsure of what the future holds. Many teens rely on school environments as a place to learn and interact with peers. The pandemic has brought new or intensified stressors and emotions into teens’ lives. Quarantine, coupled with remote learning, has been an overwhelming experience layered on top of the everyday stresses that come with being a teenager. Transitioning from adolescence to adulthood is a vulnerable and apprehensive time. Stressors and emotions, such as anxiety, depression and struggles with suicidal thoughts were already a huge problem pre-pandemic for many, especially teens. A renewed emphasis on teens’ struggles with mental health is on the mind of many as students yearn to return to school and look forward to interacting with peers and teachers, but are uncertain about their health and safety as they travel to and from school.
“This pandemic and it’s uncertainty, and going into completely virtual learning can bring those struggles with mental health back out and it is scary to think of possibly having to go online again,” Ms.Landman, a 10th grade English teacher at Manhattan Center for Science and Mathematics, said.
“It can be worse for students going through these feelings and struggles with mental health for the first time, not understanding what they are feeling or who to go to for support.”
As a teen who deals with generalized anxiety disorder, quarantine made me realize how personal this isolation time can be for people. Like many, the time at home has provided the opportunity to reflect on my priorities, while at the same time, struggling with the idea of maturing and developing without the benefit of in-person interactions with peers and school staff. With a strong push from the NYC DOE and many parents, New York City students are set to return to completely in-person school in just a few weeks. The school system needs to consider how many people have been mentally and emotionally affected during this pandemic. The realities of teen mental health are raw and, in many ways, uncomfortable.
Mental health professionals, pediatricians and social workers are suggesting warning signs about the impacts of quarantine on young people. Isolation, staring at a screen for long periods of time, losing value in having a routine and excess sleeping or eating are just the few responses to changes caused by the pandemic that may lead to signs of anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. Dr. Lauren Strelitz a pediatrician at Bayside Medical Group – Pinole suggests that teens may be “more irritable… lash out, avoid friends and not enjoy things they usually like.”Socializing with peers and participating in many different social situations are vital to teens’ social and emotional development. This pandemic put a roadblock in the middle of a very vital life stage, where teens are learning, growing and figuring out how to be an individual without their parents, friends, and other relationships.
When it comes to mental health, modern teens are under a lot of pressure and juggle multiple responsibilities. They strive to achieve high academic standards, excel at extracurriculars, prepare for college applications and in some instances, holding down a part-time job. Teens sometimes feel that adults do not value their anxiety or stressors. Alexis Bautista, who attended NYC public schools for K-8 and is currently a Rockland County high school student said, “ I think adults don’t realize how the mentality of a teenager works…they don’t put themselves in our shoes and they will continue to not think mental health is as big of a deal as it actually is.” Lola Musslewhite, who attends a specialized high school in NYC agreed. “I think sometimes parents and schools don’t understand how scary it is to go from a yearlong setting where students were able to create their own schedules, be alone, and weren’t forced to socialize to an environment where homework is often stressful, exams are never ending and the desire to fit in is a constant pressure.”
COVID-19, national lockdowns and pivots to remote instruction and work environments brought about job layoff, economic uncertainty, food insecurity, loss of access to day-to-day resources, and profound impacts associated with death of and long term illnesses of loved ones. Rachel Colon, LCSW, Primary Care social worker at Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center, said, “ People need to notice that there is need and the need is high…for food, shelter and behavioral help services.” The stress and worries that many adults faced during this time of uncertainty was at times pushed onto teens leading many to struggle with the responsibilities at home, work, as well as school. The outcomes of the pandemic put a spotlight on the risk for teens’ mental health and psychological development as teens realized and associated with the loss of family members, food insecurity, financial instability, and the responsibilities of running a household. For teens who recently graduated high school and are headed off to college, trying to form their own sense of identity, the pandemic may have added to the uncertainty.
Given the uncertainty of time, teens are searching for answers and a sense of stability in a sea of the unknown. Many have started looking for and turning to mental health resources. In a study by the CDC, adolescents aged 12 to 17 years accounted for the highest proportion of mental health–related emergency department visits in both 2019 and 2020. With the increase in teens seeking these types of behavioral services, there is a heightened awareness of the importance of mental health and creating a healthy space to access these resources.
Teens have been struggling with ways to have healthy conversations about mental health and ways to express themselves in a healthy, positive way. Primarily due to adults and people, teens look up to have not normalized mental health struggles, or found constructive ways to engage in healthy discussions about trauma, anxiety, and overall mental health, other than sweeping it under the rug. However this pandemic has brought about new conversations with parents, who are afflicted with their own pandemic anxieties and uncertainties about the future. Parents have had to find ways to handle their own emotions as they see a mirror of themselves in their teens who are experiencing the same struggles with mental health. During the pandemic, I have appreciated my parents even more, as they have validated my feelings and overall questioning when it comes to my mental health and anxiety. It is important to have healthy conversations and discussions because like myself, I know my parents are trying to figure out how to cope during this pandemic, too.
Sydney Johnson, a NYC high school student, has experienced struggles with mental health. She recognizes the importance of communication and validation of her own emotions, “I can’t speak for everyone, but personally school and my parents are the two main contributors to my mental breakdowns and anxiety attacks,” she said. “I wish they would take an approach to try and understand students and how hard we work and how we’re going through so much for us to only be teenagers.” Often, teens seek simplicity. Sometimes we just want to hear that it is okay to cry, worry and be anxious about whatever we are feeling. Emily Bader, a social worker and a high school advisor at the Jed Foundation, affirmed that even before this pandemic, teens and parents struggled to come to an understanding about mental health issues. “My advice to adults and educators is to take this seriously… a lot of times we get into this oppression Olympics, and we say, ‘Oh so what you missed prom, there are people starving or there are people who lost loved ones’ minimizing struggles… The fact is everybody is struggling in different ways.”
Teenagers are amazing and resilient. In addition to professional support, teens have been seeking support and forming friendships on social media platforms, messaging platforms such as Discord and gaming systems. While I have found the joys of modern-day technology and social media to allow teens access to friends and connections; health officials are concerned that these platforms will intensify feelings of social anxiety, and impied interactions with peers with peers returning back to school.
Teens rely on a support system and sense of structure. Parents, teachers and other significant adults need to find ways to support their teens and educate themselves when it comes to mental health. Open lines of communication, collaborative engagement approaches and full use of community resources – such as neighbors, recreational resources and other local activities are all part of the toolkit. Afterall, talking to social workers and mental health professionals is important, but it takes a village to raise and support a child, especially during these trying times.
And as students return to the classroom, school personnel need to realize the critical role that they will serve for teens’ mental health and overall development in this new “normal.” For many students school is a safe haven, where they can get a hot meal, access to various resources, a reliable sense of structure and connect with peers and healthy adults. Colon and Bader, two social workers, emphasized the necessity of social interaction between teens.
With schools being such an important place in a student’s life, I find hope in the mutual understanding of the need to acknowledge trauma, struggles and other problems that have contributed to teen mental health over this pandemic. Florelle Diver, a parent, understood the importance of a school environment in more ways than one. She wrote in an email, “Returning to school is hard especially for teens going through puberty and the realization that they want to make friends, be popular and succeed academically NOW you add a post pandemic situation & we expect teachers to be able to handle that?!? My young son dealt with social workers & counselors throughout his school career, they were great in getting him the services he needed but now add a pandemic WHO is educating teachers to recognize a troubled child?”
School staff should be up-to-date with mental health resources such as American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychological Association and National Traumatic Stress Network. Speaking with Bader, from the JED Foundation, suggested schools are going to need to, “think about becoming that physical and psychological safe space… becoming that hub and that support system for schools and teens.” School should emphasize the need to make a healthy, safe and open environment by not just jumping back into learning and returning to pre-pandemic routines. Speaking to MCSM teachers and experiencing the support and understanding they have had for me and my peers over this pandemic, I feel supported and welcomed to come back to school, even with my personal anxieties and worries.
Further strategies might include: weekly mental health seminars, peer mental health chats, , mindfulness within the classroom, private sessions with guidance counselors, or allowing teens to submit questions, worries and inquiries for those who want to remain anonymous. These suggestions, created by resources and opportunities for schools to implement into their day to day lives, are vital for the return of students and teachers.For parents like Ms.R, whose daughter has psychologically and emotionally felt the impact of the isolation and uncertainty during this past year and a half, “ Schools should have training for their teachers and staff to be prepared for mental health issues that their students are going through and that additional training will help them better assist and help their students who are suffering (silently)… Having counselors in school will make it easy for me to wave bye to her on that first day of in-person learning.”
Being a teenager myself, I have a profound understanding of what it means to identify ways to ease my anxiety. That is easier said than done. However, in general there are many techniques and ways that teens, especially those whose struggles with mental health could do things to manage and help relieve their mental health struggles, such as:
- Recognize that having your anxieties and feelings are normal and healthy
- Allow yourself downtime, find something that you enjoy that is not academic or stressful
- Taking care of your mind and body with activities such as meditation, yoga and more
- Try to connect with families and loved ones whether that be safely in-person or in a virtual setting
There are so many resources for teens besides the ones previously mentioned, such as the Text Crisis Hotline (741-741) and the National Suicide Prevention Hotline (800-273-8255). There are also many resources with the people I have spoken to such as Mount Sinai Adolescent Health Center, Active Minds, The Jed Foundation, Community Health Center with New York Presbyterian and so many more online resources.
Resilience is always part of battle, and this year COVID-19 has been a battle people were far from ready for. Despite the unplanned and forced changes and struggles with mental health during COVID-19, teachers, mental health professionals, social workers and adults have seen teenagers bring a whole new definition to the word resilience.