When school stopped, the mental health conversation began.
Schools are open again following pandemic-induced closures.
To the average eye, 32 students are back in the classroom ready to learn, but what isn’t seen is that eight of those students are now suffering from elevated depression symptoms, according to a meta-analysis of 29 studies nationally.
“I was feeling hopeless, scared, and I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to live,” said Mia Anderson, who was a high school senior at the time of the pandemic.
The CDC released data showing that in Arizona there was 31% increase in the proportion of mental health–related emergency department visits among adolescents age 12–17 years during 2020. The 2020 numbers are compared with numbers recorded in 2019. From Feb. 21 to March 20, 2021, the average emergency visit counts weekly for suspected suicide attempts increased by 50.6% among girls 12-17 compared with the same time period in 2019.
“I was feeling very sad and suicidal. I was crying in the middle of the night and my mom heard me and so she came into my room and she saw me freaking out basically. She wouldn’t leave my room even if I asked her, and then she kept on asking me if she needed to take me to the ER. I was like no, no, but then eventually I was like ‘yes, take me there’ because I think I’m going to hurt myself,” said Anderson.
Anderson, like many other students nationwide, lived with depression and suicidal thoughts during Covid-19. When schools shut down because of Covid-19, many students reported feeling lost and were deprived of everyday activities. Those activities were healthy outlets students previously used to cope with everyday stress.
Paula J. McCall, a nationally certified school psychologist said that she has noticed that a notable pattern that she has noticed among students is a lack of coping strategies. School cancelations sound like any kid’s dream, but in reality, they became a nightmare for students’ mental health.
“I have seen in youth much of what I have seen in all of us - levels of isolation we have never experienced before, loss of social connections, reduction of activities that we counted on for fun, release, and connection,” said McCall.
These activities are crucial for the mental health of youth, especially those under high amounts of stress.
“Many youth rely on social interactions and extracurricular activities as a source of release, belonging and coping. They count on these things to find connection, validation and meaning. Many of our youth have experienced long periods of time without these, and they have therefore lost some of their most naturally embedded coping strategies, making management of depression and anxiety so much more challenging,” said McCall.
Connor Eaton, a student at ASU, was a college freshman at the time of the shutdown and was forced to return home and temporarily leave the life he had just created behind.
“After Covid hit, I just kind of lost touch with all of them [friends]” said Eaton.
Students, including those of college age, resorted to videogames as a form of communication. With a jolt of the controller, students not only controlled their avatar but felt that they also took back some control over their lives.
Frances Manning, an English Teacher at Desert Vista High School in Ahwatukee, said she has also noticed a major shift in her students work ethic following the pandemic.
“I believe there has been a change in work ethic, but in the most understandable way. This pandemic has been a collective trauma; something the entire world has dealt with. For our students, it meant a total shift in their everyday lives, and it's only natural that their work ethic would decline. In my classes, I tried to focus on quality over quantity in terms of work, and I hope that it helped. I would argue that teachers also felt this change in work ethic as well.” said Manning.
In the race to return to normal, expectations are high for students, and mental health should be of importance in the process.
“Our country responded to a health crisis in the best way that it could, and we have mental health outcomes as a result of it. In my opinion, it was inevitable, just as the national trauma and impact of 9/11 was inevitable. Now we need to look at moving forward,” said McCall.
As a teacher, Manning recognizes that, “Asking them [students] to go back to ‘normal’ this year is a big ask. It will take time for students to transition back to this way of life.”
Anderson and Eaton, after experiencing difficulty with their mental health during Covid, decided they are ready to heal and transition back to life as they knew it before the pandemic.
“I think everybody is just trying to give themselves a slap in the face, like we are back into this. I need to give the effort that I used to give, I need to care like I used to care,” said Eaton. “Everybody is trying to jump start themselves when it feels like the spark was kind of taken from us with Covid.”
If you or someone you know is struggling, please reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline '1-800-273-TALK (8255)' or text TALK to 741741 at the Crisis Text Line.
Tabitha Bland is a student at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Arizona State University.
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