By Ms. Ivette Bohlen
As we recently acknowledged the passing of the one-year mark of when our schools on the Close closed due to the pandemic, the question school counselors are often asked is, “What toll is the pandemic having on the mental health of our children and teens?”
We may not know the answer for years to come. The cases of anxiety and depression continue to rise at alarming rates, and the “pandemic fatigue” and “COVID-19 wall” that children and teens are experiencing is real. According to CNN Health reporter Matt Villano, this is due in part to kids having a different sense of time in how we live our lives. Adults know that not much changes from year to year, but children and teens live their lives as a series of events. The last year meant no birthday parties, camps, recitals, holidays with grandparents, vacations, school milestones and traditions, etc. None of these things have happened normally in over a year.
We all have a reservoir of coping abilities to get us through losses and traumas. Thanks to years of experience building up resilience, adults have a larger reservoir for managing this grief than children and teens. The psychological concept “cognitive load” speaks to how much we can hold in our minds at any time. For children and teens the losses have piled up and the resulting grief has maxed-out their cognitive load, and the burgeoning coping reservoir has run dry, resulting in hitting the proverbial “COVID-19 wall.” In teens this can be characterized by lack of motivation, loss of interest in school and other activities that used to bring them joy, and feelings of being overwhelmed.
A few weeks ago the results of a national research study, “Kids Under Pressure,” by NBC News and Challenge Success, a non-profit organization affiliated with the Stanford Graduate School of Education, were released which reveal the impact of the pandemic on high school student well-being and academic engagement. Key findings include the following:
Students, especially females and students of color, continue to experience high levels of stress and pressure.
Students’ engagement with learning is especially low now.
Students’ relationships with adults and peers are strong, yet appear strained in recent times.
In relation to key finding #1, the study reports in Fall 2020, 32% of students report mental health as a major source of stress versus 26% pre-pandemic. This is even more concerning for females who cite mental health as a source of stress at more than twice the frequency of their male classmates. Additionally, the four major sources of stress cited by students are “grades, tests, and other assessments,” followed by “overall workload,” “lack of sleep,” and “time management.” The study also reports that these major sources of stress are consistent before and during the pandemic. It is important for NCS students to talk to their trusted adults when they are having trouble managing their academic load and feeling overwhelmed. This will be particularly important in the next week as we are nearing the end of the quarter.
We know the pandemic is taking its toll on the emotional health of children and teens. What can students do for themselves and each other as we continue to live in these conditions? First, and foremost, students can double down on self-care, engage in self-compassion, and try to recognize and manage feelings of grief. What can students do for each other? Show compassion and empathy for one another, connect with each other (in person if you are able), and acknowledge feelings of loss. Remember STEM:
SLEEP – clean up your sleep hygiene & get the recommended 8-10 hours of sleep
TALK – process your emotions, talk about how you’re feeling, and name what is causing stress
EAT – eat 3 healthy square meals and 2 good snacks a day; stay hydrated
MOVE – movement & exercise, exercise for 30 minutes a day & get outdoors when you can