We are embarking upon the second year of the Coronavirus pandemic. For many, the Omicron Variant served as another inconvenience, annoyance, or obstacle to daily life. For teenage students attending schools, however, it’s a contributing cause to an ongoing youth mental health crisis.
High schoolers have been mostly overlooked in the political battles, science wars, and mask and vaccine mandates. While being told that they are ‘resilient’ and ‘flexible,’ it can be easy to forget that teens have access to the same information as adults. Many of them report feeling overwhelmed by the news these days and experiencing feelings of fear and physical sickness.
COVID-19 Impact on Youth Mental Health
After 1.5 years of remote learning, students are suddenly thrust back into a school environment and expected to function as business as usual. They face the same rigorous academic expectations as generations prior, while also managing an abrupt increase in social interaction, new styles of teaching, and teacher and staff shortages.
Adults can have discussions with their employers and advocate to work from home if they choose. Decisions around the needs of teenagers, however, are made by school officials, the CDC, and parents, who all want kids back in school. After a year of remote learning, most people see the value of in-person learning. However, the kids that straddle the lines of independence and dependence, struggle with thoughts and experiences that often get overlooked or ignored.
Students report increased rates of anxiety and panic attacks, as well as trouble sleeping, social anxiety, school refusal, and, have trouble concentrating and staying focused.
Students Are Anxious About Masks at School
In addition to an increase in anxiety disorders and school refusals, a concerning number of students report difficulties eating in school. Students may avoid eating in the cafeteria, request to eat alone, or completely opt-out of eating. The reason being, some students fear being in densely populated areas like the cafeteria where masks and social distancing are not in place.
This not only places an added social pressure on these students, but they are forced to choose between seeing friends and eating, or isolation and going hungry.
Reported anxiety related to changing clothes for gym class in school has risen as well. They are expected to change for gym in an enclosed space while their peers take their masks off, with little to no supervision. These mandated experiences, with the best of intentions, draw attention to the lack of ‘normalcy’ rather than supporting students where they are within this complex experience.
Furthermore, adolescents have the added pressure to uphold their image in high school. It’s not “cool” to seem like you’re worried about something as simple as a mask.
To add to this stress, they also have to navigate the many mixed messages from the outside. Adults and authority figures can’t come to a consensus on the risks of Coronavirus if it’s even something to worry about or if masks are helpful. All these developing minds know is people are getting sick and masks are supposed to help. So they may grasp onto this information because it’s the only thing that makes sense at the time.
Even though adolescents don’t generally get severely sick from COVID-19, they worry about passing it to their loved ones, who can get sick. Furthermore, if they do test positive for COVID-19, they are still expected to quarantine for 5-10 days.
High School Students Want Input On School COVID-19 Policies
Students report feeling mistrustful of school administrators, for not hearing their needs. As news of increased cases and severity of COVID-19 circulates, students report feeling mistrustful of school administration making decisions that affect their health and safety without hearing their needs or input.
They feel that they are being ‘forced’ by schools to go back to “normal,” when they are constantly reminded of just how abnormal this time period is. They’re supposed to behave as if nothing has changed while simultaneously being reminded that they’re not having the experience any other generation has had in their lifetime.
To make matters worse, many students faced with COVID-19 symptoms are sent home to isolate without any information to make up assignments or tests. Upon returning, they face failing grades in classes, overwhelmed teachers, and a lack of leniency or support to help them catch up. This further fuels anxiety in these students potentially harming their grades.
High school students feel the pressure to perform and worry that they will be expected to uphold the same standards as students did years before COVID-19 happened. They often share how they feel empathy for the teachers who are burnt out and losing capacity by the day. These teens also feel the effects of the pandemic and fear they cannot catch up, due to unrealistic standards. They are missing assumptions around their resilience and ability to adapt to the ever-changing ‘new normal’ at an even more rapid pace than adults.
How to Support Teenage Mental Health in the Pandemic
Validate their experience, hold space for their anxiety and treat it with care. Remind them that their experience of safety, both physically and emotionally, is vital for them to be able to learn. It’s impossible to learn when one does not feel safe. Acknowledging their experience allows them the space to be vulnerable and address their academic concerns, within context.
A recurring theme in adolescence is feeling misunderstood; This can be remedied by asking questions with the intent to listen and learn, rather than to immediately teach and guide. Let them process what makes them anxious by fostering curiosity around their experiences.
Next, try working together to create a ‘toolbox’ of coping skills to help students ease anxiety. Practice mindfulness-based techniques to help them stay grounded and skills tailored to the student’s specific anxieties. This way, they’re better equipped to manage symptoms of anxiety and improve their wellbeing during the pandemic.
Finally, it’s recommended that school officials, administrators, and parents engage in collaborative discussions on how we, as a community, can help support adolescents. Offer to support a struggling teen by advocating on their behalf in upcoming with school administration, other parents, and important figures in their lives to ensure their needs are met. It can make a huge impact on their quality of life while also building a safety net within the relationship.
Being a teenager in this ever-changing world is challenging enough, let alone during a global pandemic.
Let’s focus our energy on helping this generation. They are so eager to be independent but continue to look to adult role models for support and guidance. They need people in positions of authority and power to be their voice and advocate for their needs.
Written By: MaryJane Reilly, LPC, and Dr. Kailyn Bobb, PsyD
At Clarity Clinic, we have highly trained staff who specialize in therapy and psychiatry services. To learn more about how we can support your mental health, call Clarity Clinic on (312) 815-9660 or schedule an appointment today.