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What’s on Your Mind?

by MEHREEN ZAKARIA - October 15, 2020 - COVID-19 has drastically changed the world as we know it, and today’s youth is coping with how to grow up with this new “normal.”

To most, the news that a highly contagious and deadly virus was taking over the world was a surprise. Suddenly, milestone events such as prom, graduation, vacations, and more were taken away. The Coronavirus hit hard for everyone, especially certain groups such as teenagers. In the midst of all the chaos, teens now were faced with a whole new variety of challenges, the most glaring of which was figuring out how to cope with identifying and individualizing themselves: without socialization, without certainty, and without normalcy.

So, how exactly has teen mental health changed through the pandemic?

Well, it’s not looking the best. According to a YoungMinds survey provided to adolescents, 80% of respondents said that their mental health had gotten worse over quarantine. The biggest factors to worsening mental health are prolonged isolation, loss of milestones, and lack of access to mental health support. Eighty-seven percent of respondents agreed that they had felt lonely or isolated due to COVID-19, and 31% of respondents said they were not able to obtain the mental health resources that they needed.

Dr. Ellen Rome, a pediatrician, and head of the Center for Adolescent Medicine expresses her concern for extroverted teens in quarantine. She notes that “[Extroverts] tend to recharge with people,” and, due to this, “many of them will do everything they can - including participating in risk-taking behaviors or not socially distancing - to get around it.”

Social interaction is a vital part of growing up, and having peers creates a sense of belonging and closeness. For teens that have lost face-to-face socialization but still desperately long for it, it’s difficult to meet those desires while also keeping families and loved ones safe. It’s now a responsibility to all of us to make sure that we do the best we can to protect ourselves and others from COVID, but the mental effects that come with it are nothing to neglect as well.

Additionally, teens are missing out on the big wins of their youth. Julia A.C. Case, a clinical psychology student, states that, “[Through milestones], teens become more independent by developing cognitive, social, emotional and academic skills that prepare them for adulthood.” Whether it be your first varsity season, the play you’ve been working months to perform in, or another event that you put your heart into, the major milestones of being a teenager have been taken away from all of us. And it’s difficult to know how to react to having such major parts of life taken away without any say can evoke feelings of anxiety, stress, confusion, and fear for the future.

Finally, quarantine has not been a friendly time for teens who need support the most. Teens that have been struggling with anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses find themselves with a lack of mental health services during COVID-19. Many schools stopped aiding their students with their mental health as soon as quarantine began, and many health, psychiatric, and therapeutic facilities have struggled to meet the needs of their patients while also keeping them safe from the virus. Even for those who don’t need professional help, a lot of teens feel like they can’t reach out to their friends or family. They don’t want to be a burden when there’s already so much happening, so many teens resort to pushing away their feelings, choosing to isolate themselves and their mental health even further.

Certainly, the Coronavirus has been ruthless on many youth’s mental health; however, not everything has been bad. A lot of teens have actually taken this time to take part in introspection and self-care. Quarantine has given many the opportunity to start working out more, meditating, practicing gratitude, and develop many other productive, healthy activities (Chloe Ting is a name many have become familiar with by now). Also, even if they haven't been productive during quarantine, some teens have discovered another helpful skill: the ability to relax. It’s great to fill up your time with rewarding activities, but it also is just as important to be content with doing nothing at all. Many teens have learned to finally let go a little bit, thus relieving unfair expectations on themselves and easing the already-stressful situation. Quarantine has even taken away some daily stressors teens face; a lot of anxiety can stem from in-person events, such as school, social gatherings, etc., so introverted teens have found calm in being quarantined.

Plus, while we all may be physically separated, we’re getting through this pandemic together. “The world is experiencing [some of the same] baseline anxiety,” says Dr. Rome. So, while we all are literally isolated from each other, we surely aren’t alone with our thoughts and feelings. That, in itself, is pretty reassuring.

The community of Westfield is no exception to the effect of COVID-19 on the mental health of teens.

“Continuing to focus on making connections with and between students and coming up with creative ways to do that is a big one since we can't hold events like usual, and we don't have as much class time together,” WHS counselor Mrs. Lyndsay Corya said. “So that quality time we do spend together, and making the most of it, is essential. Also, students should feel like they have a voice and can reach out if they need help. Clubs such as Bring Change to Mind are crucial especially to normalize mental health and recognizing that it’s okay not to be okay. The mentors and CORE curriculum in general are wonderful. It comes down to being creative and getting kids involved in different ways.”

Recent alumnus Josh Fassnacht also provided a great piece of advice for anyone that is struggling with their mental health.

“Something that truly registered with me is that everyone is on a different journey,” Fassnacht said. “Legitimately. I will be there to make anybody and everybody's journey a happier one … but where you are in your journey and where I am in mine doesn't mean that the other person needs to be anywhere but where they are. Take your time, grow and live at your own pace. If you try to live life like a race or copy someone else's journey, the only thing running away from you is happiness and the ability to make others happy.”

Looking for ways to cope with mental health during COVID? The USA Mental Health First Aid program has provided various tips for teens. To name a few:

  1. Maintain a daily routine. This can help create a sense of normalcy during these times where everything seems to be out of our control.

  2. Stay connected with others. Although we may not be getting as much face-to-face interaction anymore, it is important nevertheless to keep up with family and friends for both their and your own well-being. Create and maintain connections with people that you are comfortable talking with and that make you feel safe.

  3. Notice your stressors and detach from them. It’s easy to get caught up in the social media drama or stress out over that new diet you just started. Take into account what activities may be doing more harm than good, and what truly makes you happy.

  4. Take time for yourself. Since we’re spending more time with ourselves now more than ever, why not make the most of it? Take the time now to discover new traits about yourself, pick up new things you haven’t started otherwise, and be both kind and proud of yourself for getting through these tough times.

Coping with mental health surely isn’t a linear road; there will be good and bad days. But, regardless, make sure to take some time out of your day to stop and ask yourself: “What’s on my mind?”

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