Still Not Quite Right: Checking In on Teen Mental Health

As the severity of COVID-19 worsened, and individuals were pushed into isolation, pre-existing mental health concerns were exacerbated tremendously. Stuck inside with nowhere to go and no one to see (not to mention the looming fear of contracting COVID-19), many felt hopeless and alone. Prior to the pandemic, mental health care was al- ready severely inadequate. Then the pandemic hit, and it got even worse.

Taboo

The taboo surrounding mental health support, and mental health in general, has always been there. Adults and teens alike continue to be reluctant to reveal that they struggle with their mental health because of the negative reaction that may follow it. The stigma surrounding mental health can often derive from a lack of understanding as to what it encompasses. Many also fail to understand the range in severity of mental health issues and blame individuals themselves for their mental health conditions when that’s not always the case. Even before the pandemic, health insurance didn’t adequately cover the cost of mental health care services. Job loss due to the pandemic was met with a lack of assistance from insurance companies to help cover the costs. At the beginning of the pandemic, mental health services were put on pause completely as specialists learned how to navigate their services online. Individuals dealing with mental illnesses were lost and were failed by the mental health care system. According to the National Health Interview Survey (NHIS), the average share of adults who reported symptoms relating to anxiety increased by 30% during the pandemic. As communication through technology during the pandemic increased, more digital services were curated—such as free apps. While this was great in theory, it recently came to light that many of these Checking in on Teen Mental Health By Nikki Mirala and Hannah Gandal 44 Feature apps were sharing user data with third parties such as Google and Facebook. The information reported from these apps was extremely confidential, including diary entries and self-reports. These apps gave individuals rare access to free mental health services yet completely violated their privacy—another clear indication of how mental health care failed individuals during the pandemic.


Unequal Impact

The pandemic has had a monumental impact on many marginalized communities. From a lack of protective equipment to the inability to work from home, residents of these communities witnessed many challenges. But in relation to mental health, these communities faced hardships prior to the pandemic.

There are numerous mental health barriers within these communities as a result of the stigma surrounding the health of people of color. “It’s a double whammy,” said medical director Dr. Lanre Somorin, adding how there are “pre-existing medical, social conditions, and now you have the pandemic itself basically disrupting the way health is provided for them.”

The assumption that individuals of color are stronger in terms of perseverance further contributes to the taboo surrounding mental health and the reluctance to recognize the need for help. In the medical world, many patients of color are denied stronger pain relievers even when they are in dire need of them due to the misconception that they are more resilient.

According to the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), “half of white medical trainees believe such myths as black people have thicker skin or less sensitive nerve endings than white people.” A 2016 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science found that medical trainees who endorsed this belief were less likely to treat the pain of black patients appropriately.

The standard for mental health care and medical services before the pandemic was already low, but once COVID-19 put the world on pause, those notable insufficiencies were exacerbated at a colossal rate.


The return to school

Many may believe that coming back to school could fix this, but the sudden overload of work and class time may be too much for teens to jump back into.

In terms of physical health, adjusting to the long hours spent at school and studying has made maintaining healthy habits difficult for many. One student at B-CC who would like to remain anonymous explained that “Everyday I am showing up to school exhausted because I can’t get enough sleep.

This makes it very difficult to get work done and honestly just get through the school day.” Spending most of the day at school and doing homework has not only affected the amount of sleep many students are able to get, but the amount of time they have to take part in activities that improve their well-being. Lydia Ball, a senior at B-CC, said that “I have less time to go on runs or walks than I did in the summer because of schoolwork and college applications”. Exercise is a big stress-reliever for many people, including Lydia, and it is evident that students need more time to do these activities.

Many were wondering whether or not teachers would accommodate the fact that many students have not been inside the building for one and a half years. Last year, most students did not have much homework and only had three or four classes each day.

When asked about the flexibility and amount of understanding that teachers have for their students during this time, Lydia mentioned that “A majority of my teachers haven’t been accommodating the workload or pace of the class, but they’ve been understanding of the difficult transition”. It would be incredibly helpful if teachers “talk more about allowing extensions to some students or giving them more baron time to get stuff done,” The anonymous student said.


The upside to in-person

Returning back to school has not been all negative for students. Many have had much better mental health ever since in-person classes have started back up. Although the stress of tests and projects is still very prevalent, the much-needed social interaction for teens almost outweighs it.

Lydia stated that school has had a positive impact on her mental health, “Not being able to see friends everyday was really difficult for me. I find school to be much more enjoyable when I’m able to be social.” She added that it is great to be able to see friends in the hallway and in class and rekindle old friendships that she had pre-pandemic. An anonymous student mentioned that they are “loving the school spirit that B-CC has brought back into the building.”

Learning inside of a classroom in a more traditional setting has also had a positive impact on students and their health. “Being in person with teachers is extremely helpful”, said Lydia, “I can focus better in the classroom rather than online, which makes learning material much easier.”

Many students had issues connecting with teachers online last year, while teachers had trouble efficiently teaching classes over Zoom. This made it much more difficult for students to learn the course material and make good grades.

There is no doubt that this quick turnaround from doing completely online school for a year and a half to 35 hour school weeks starting at 7:45 a.m. each day has put a toll on many students and negatively affected their mental and physical health. But, teenagers crave social interactions. Returning to school where they can chat and constantly be around other teenagers has been an incredibly positive aspect for many students. “I would say that I’m incredibly happier now than I was during lock down,’’ said Lydia