In the continuing stresses of COVID-19, concerns over mental health have taken a front seat in the new school year. The pandemic has altered the way students have to interact and socialize, which experts say can impact mental health.
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In fact, the nonprofit America’s Promise Alliance recently released survey results about increasing concerns for middle and high school students during the COVID-19 pandemic. The report suggests those students are experiencing collective trauma, over the health of their family, finances and their own education during the pandemic.
It’s something Marilyn Wingate knows all too well. Like millions of children, her seven-year-old daughter left school in March and never returned. The magnitude of that, is taking its toll.
“My daughter started talking to herself/having conversations with herself since the summertime. She is virtual 100% now and has been home and I didn’t realize how bad the isolation was affecting her,” Wingate said. “She was dancing in the spring, too, but like everything else, that turned into a Zoom class. Zoom was an option this year for dance but I recognized that my daughter needed a physical, social interaction with her friends. I have now put her back in dancing school for in-studio learning. She will be there twice a week. She needs to physically see her friends and be around other people than just us. Her brother is 6 and doesn’t stimulate her at all.”
The effects of that social isolation is real. Research shows that extended periods of loneliness can deteriorate mental and physical health outcomes over time, leading to depression, musculoskeletal disorders, and even chronic disease.
“We need to be more concerned about mental health,” Whittaker said, noting that while school is usually a good place for children to learn social skills, socializing is very different now than before the pandemic.”
The structure of life–-at least how life used to look-–vanished almost completely overnight. In March, most schools across the country were forced to shut their doors abruptly to mitigate the spread of the virus. That’s a huge day-to-day adjustment for students, notes Educational Psychologist and Licensed Professional Counselor-Supervisor with Providence Health Services, Dr. Richelle Whittaker.
Back-to-school, what now?
With school re-openings in full swing, there’s a lot of uncertainty for high school and college students about what this next year will look like. Some students have returned to their campuses, only to be told their classes will be held online. Some are cooped up at home, separated from their usual cohort of teachers and friends. There is still no clear path forward about how this pandemic may proceed, and when life will resemble some version of “normal” again.
2020 has been a rough year for everyone, but teens and young adults are among those hit hardest by mental health concerns. A recent CDC report of 5,400 people found that 25% of respondents between the age of 18-24 had contemplated suicide in the previous 30 days.
Juliet Stipeche, who works as the Director of Education for the City of Houston, said there are a lot of organizations that like Mental Health America of Greater Houston and the Collaborative of Behavorial Health that are working with school leaders and other officials to help handle any mental health situations that might arise.
“These organizations worked with teachers and staff members about recognizing mental health issues in children. They developed a lot of rubrics after Hurricane Harvey. And those came in very handy now that we have this global pandemic,” Stipeche said. “The city is collaborating with Baylor College of Medicine to provide telemedicine and mental health support. Parents should not be afraid to ask schools about the resources that are available to them. It’s always good to have a good rapport with the school, especially now when information is so critical.”
Opening up about mental health issues
The first step in addressing any mental health challenges, is to get your children talking, Whitaker says.
“Parents should engage their children in activities that usually help them open up about what’s going on in their lives and keeps them from feeling attacked. Let the conversation happen naturally,” Whittaker said.
If that isn’t working (and even if it is), Whittaker advises parents to consider therapy as an option, particularly as social media is making many children more comfortable with the idea of speaking to someone. But Whittaker points out that parents should be mindful that some therapists are overloaded, which means vigilance is necessary.
“Many therapists and psychologists aren’t taking new clients simply because of the volume of current clients. In that situation, don’t just give up. Ask for referrals, keep looking,” she said.
When Dionne Blacknell’s son first began complaining about being locked inside, she admits that she would dismiss his concerns and highlight how some people “had it so much worse.”
“I would also remind him of how many people died and how lucky we were. I didn’t realize that I was pushing aside his feelings. He was a senior and everything he had worked for – graduation, prom, college – had been upended. I had to give him room to grieve that,” she said.
There’s no comprehensive word to sum up the emotions of this moment. Dr. Whittaker describes it as a general sense of grief.
“When we hear the word ‘grief,’ we tend to think of the death of a loved one or somebody really close,” she says–a tragically frequent occurrence since COVID-19 began. “On top of that, there’s the grief of losing your sense of normalcy, routine and social connections. We have to allow our children room to grieve, even something that may not seem as important to us as adults.”
It’s not always easy to recognize when someone is going through a mental health crisis, especially if they aren’t particularly forthcoming with their emotions. Dr. Whittaker encourages parents to pay attention to their child’s behavior. She said that if they appear disengaged, unmotivated or acting out, parents should take those as warning signs.
“What families really want to look for is changes in behaviors, changes in personality,” Whittaker says. “If your child isn’t talking to you as much anymore, or spending a lot time by themselves,” that’s a red flag, especially if they’re not taking time to connect with their friends virtually. “Sometimes, it can be normal teen angst, but you still should be aware.”
You may also see a decrease in motivation, Whittaker notes, especially without the routine of in-person schooling. If your student is having a hard time getting out of bed, if they’re sleeping too little or if their appetite has changed, this may denote mental stress.
“As a parent, follow your gut,” Whittaker says. “If you feel like something might not be right, it’s better to talk with them or find someone for them to talk to before it might spiral into something more serious.”
In general, it helps just to be present and available. Active Minds, a nonprofit advocacy group supporting mental health education for students, found that the number one way parents can support students is simply by spending time with them.
“It doesn’t have to be productive time,” Chief Program Officer Laura Horne says. “Maybe you allow more time online than usual to let them connect with their friends. Maybe you incorporate morning walks or evening dinners into your daily routine. Whatever it is, this will help create the space necessary to dive in deeper.”
No clue how to start the conversation? Horne lays out a three-step tool from Active Minds to help people talk about mental health.
Validate. When we hear that someone is struggling, our instinct is to start offering solutions. Instead, validate the other person’s experience. Instead of, “It could be so much worse!” say “I hear you and I understand.”
Appreciate. Admire the courage it took to admit something so personal.
Refer. Take concrete action. Don’t just offer up a list of counseling services. Ask questions to help your young adult explore the different ideas for where help can come from. Remember that what works for you may not work for them.
80% experienced some negative impact on their mental health
20% mental health significantly worsened
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (24/7): 1-800-273-8255
- Crisis Text Line: 741741
- Talk or Text Therapy: Talkspace, BetterHelp, Trusst
- Texas Youth Hotline: 800-989-6884 or text 512-872-5777
- Texas Suicide Prevention Hotline: 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255)
- Alanon and Alateen: 888-4AL-ANON (888-425-2666)
- Texas Substance Abuse Hotline: 877-9-NO-DRUG (877-966-3784)
- Texas Suicide Prevention: 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255)
Harris County’s COVID-19 Mental Health Support Line: 833-251-7544, available 24/7.