Kaiserslautern, Germany: February 2021— Gathered at a gymnastics training center, four teenage girls discuss how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted their lives. Using a simple “Happy Meter” scale of one to ten— one being extremely unhappy and ten being all smiles— the yearly average among the girls is barely six. The girls rated their happiness as low as a two during the last shut-down in Germany.
Robbed of all normalcy, teens grapple for solid ground amidst the pandemic
As the COVID-19 pandemic has the entire world in a state of disbelief, teenagers are one of the hardest hit populations. Finding ways to address the psychological struggles that teens are facing has become a priority for school administrators, mental health professionals, and parents alike. Teens in America and across the world are experiencing the fall-out of the pandemic, but lack the ability to process the loss it has caused. Tangible tools, community involvement, and the ability to tear down the stigmas surrounding the mental health field are all things that would be helpful to the teenage population. Creating avenues for them to receive the care that they need must become high priority in the days and months to come. #pandemic #covid-19
Processing the losses
The effects of the pandemic on the teen population are numerous. As the rhythm of their everyday lives is disrupted, they are faced with endless unknowns. How to process those unknowns becomes the challenge. Dr. Emily Ferrara, director and therapist at Simplify Life in Atlanta, Georgia, specializes in treating teen anxiety disorders. When asked about the loss that teenagers are experiencing during this time, Dr. Ferrara responded, “All things ‘rights of passage’ have been stripped from them. There is profound loss, but they don’t have the tools to process the grief. With loss, there needs to be some healthy grieving.” Traditions of the high school experience are looked to with anticipation. For millions of high-schoolers, these traditions have vanished. Friday night football games, proms, and graduations have all come and gone. Events that were anticipated with excitement vanished into the shadows of the pandemic. Students are now unable to get these lost moments back.
The past year has taken a toll on teenage mental health. This toll is visible to many, but teachers have the best seat in the house. Mr. John Taylor, a High School English teacher in Mahtomedi, Minnesota reports significant change. He has seen both a decline in grades and in participation this year. Mr. Taylor attributes this to varying teaching platforms, loss of regular social interaction, and even the masks his students are required to wear. It’s important to recognize that these changes in performance serve as red-flags to deeper issues. Therapist, Emily Ferrara identifies that not only anxiety issues are on the rise, but also depression and self-harm. “Their little bodies and their little hearts are filled with so much tension. They don’t have the tools or resources to figure out how to combat the feelings.” Many students are suffering in silence as they sit in isolation. Without constant human interaction, many cases of depression and self-harm go undetected. Richard LaFleur at University of West Georgia confirms Ferrara’s observations through his studies, stating that “the loss that teenagers are experiencing is resulting in fear and anxiety.” (LaFleur 286) #teenagers
The fighter’s corner
The need for support is great, but to whom do teens turn to? Stigmas are not specific to the teen population regarding mental health. However, they do play a role in who is deemed safe to talk to. In 2006, prior to any foresight of a global pandemic, Lisa J. Barney and her team from Australia and New Zealand conducted a study. They discovered that stigmas often stand in the way of teens receiving the help that they need. Young people would prefer to seek help from their friends. (Barney et. al 51) They were not wrong. 100% of the teen panel in Germany reported that they turn to friends first. When one stops to think about this, it makes sense. They empathize with one another. Communally, they find themselves in a situation that doesn’t make sense. They unite.
But, what about professional mental health care? It is reasonable to assume that students have access to support at school. Or do they? Distance learning has definitely made this more difficult in the past year. Though, according to Mr. Taylor, even without the pandemic, 90% of a school counselor’s day consists of scheduling and other non-therapy duties. He explains that students have a few outside resources for therapy, but that they are highly under advertised– thus highly underused. #stigma
Training for the next fight
So, what can the community around these teens do to help? First, Dr. Emily Ferrara gives two pieces of advice to the teen community. “Name it! Name what you are feeling. We cannot change what we cannot identify. And then, tell someone that is safe. It is important for teens to pause for a moment and feel. It’s important for them to know that it’s okay to say, ‘I’m not okay!’’ Second, in order to remove the stigmas surrounding mental health, community-wide acceptance of the mental health field is critical. “Time to Change”, a British social marketing campaign did just that. A study by Sampogna and colleagues, explains how the campaign focused on breaking down stigmas related to mental health. From this campaign, we can see how using platforms and channels that teenagers are comfortable with will be most successful. (Sampogna et. al 117)
The comeback round
Frustrated. Anxious. Mad. Lonely. Panicked. These are all the words used by the teen panel to describe their mental state over the past year. But, one more word was also used— hope. Despite this disruption to their formative years, our future generation holds onto hope! #hope
If you or a teenager in your life needs assistance, help is readily available. Please see the following list of hotlines and organizations standing by waiting for your call. #mental health
National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433)
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or online
Both of the above hotlines are available 24/7 and will connect you to immediate assistance in your area.
Safe Place: 1-888-290-7233 or online
Safe place is available in 32 states and specializes in helping young people.
The Trevor Project: 866-4-U-TREVOR or online
The Trevor Project focuses on the needs of LGTBQ youth. There are phone, text, and chat options through their website.
The Jed Foundation online
The Jed Foundation aims to help teens and young adults by reducing stigmas surrounding the mental health field. ULifeline is specifically aimed at University students– a confidential, anonymous, resource center.