Mental Health in the Age of COVID


Cover Photo Designed By Sophomore Kenzie Steinberg

Sophe Prevallet, Managing Editor

It started with a 2-week break. Then schools closed indefinitely, and students began to hunker down. Proms were canceled; classes went online; businesses shut their doors; gatherings ceased to exist. We binge-watched Tiger King, baked bread, and made whipped coffee. No one knew what the future had in store, and as the months went on and on, it felt as if the time of the coronavirus would have no end.

Before COVID, depression, and anxiety among teenagers in the United States were on the rise. From 2003 to 2011, the percentage of people aged 6-17 who reported “ever having been diagnosed with either anxiety or depression” rose from 5.4% to 8.4%. In 2016, this number rose to 16.5%, or 7.7 million people. Cases of major depression among teens ages sixteen and seventeen rose by 69% from 2009 to 2017.

And then the pandemic shut everything down and placed life on hold. While this past year has affected everybody, adolescents have faced a number of unique challenges. As said by Dr. Streilitz, a pediatrician in Stanford, California, “this is a time when [teenagers are normally] developmentally supposed to be gaining independence.” Restrictions presented by stay-at-home measures make it practically impossible for young people to test their independence. Plus, virtual learning environments are incredibly isolating and make learning especially difficult. 

Devin Lopez, a senior at HHS, says that he is “less motivated to do schoolwork” and feels as if “school is not as much of a priority. When I’m not going in every day, I don’t feel like school matters to me as much as it used to.” 

Mamie Rushkoff, a sophomore, feels that she was “originally very motivated to do schoolwork,” but now is “just having anxiety attacks and crying every night from the workload,” articulating that she “doesn’t know how to handle it anymore.” She has struggled with anxiety since she was 8 years old: “usually it comes and goes. But since COVID, my anxiety attacks have been much more regular and I am extremely nervous every day when it comes to school or just life in general.” 

Anxiety can be common for high school students, but with the rise of COVID has come an amplification of these feelings. 

Hastings’ social worker Ms. Repp says that “anxiety thrives when you don’t know what’s coming next… and you’re not feeling safe. So this pandemic has created big emotions that [are hard to] shut off.” She notes that “anxiety serves as a very good mechanism–a little bit of anxiety is what is going to prevent you from running across the street.” But when there is too much anxiety, it turns into “worrying about everything all the time, and when it does not get shut off, that’s when things become worrisome… which is why this is such a tough time for so many people.”

Many people I talked to mentioned how overwhelmed they were feeling during these unprecedented times; Ms. Grassia, our school librarian, described herself as being “very tired and very overwhelmed a lot… I can tell you that there’s a part of me that feels like I have my own emotions that I’m grappling with through this pandemic, and the way my job has changed this year, and I don’t necessarily know how much I have to offer [students] in my way of help. I can help with logistical things–how do I access a website, can you get me past this paywall… but the other stuff, the communication with people, that’s a little harder. I think I just have less to give generally.” 

Devin Lopez echoed this sentiment, stating that “it’s so hard to stay motivated with online school and it’s easy to fall behind on work, and then you start to feel overwhelmed and stressed because the assignments are piling up.” 

While both students and staff members can relate to greater levels of anxiety and stress about work, students also face unique challenges given where they are developmentally. One of these challenges is what Ms. Repp refers to as “the art of finding your peer group and socializing.” She states that “developmentally, the adolescent is to take the values and life experiences that your family has provided and then take those and apply them to your peer group for you to figure out what makes sense for you, what values are important, and what are your non-negotiables in dealing with other people.” However, “when you don’t have the school environment where you spend eight or more hours of your day, five days a week, getting to know people, and making decisions about [people and friendships], it creates some confusion and maybe even feelings of grief because you had something and now you don’t.” 

She continued by saying how teenagers are “meant to be interacting with others, to help you figure out who you are.” This means that in place of human interactions, students are turning to social media for some sense of community and togetherness. However, multiple studies have found that social media can have negative effects on your mental health, leading to an increase of feelings like loneliness, depression, and anxiety. With social media becoming one of the only sources of human interaction, there are noticeable declines in overall wellbeing.

In addition to this, Ms. Grassia feels that “pre-pandemic… [teenagers] felt a sense of loneliness because they might feel different, or they haven’t really yet understood their own identity. The pandemic has created actual social isolation on top of the isolation that teens normally feel and adjust to as they get older.” This means that for teenagers especially, there is a “lot of loss because they have memories of the old times, the before times, but they’re also in a place that makes it harder to have the coping mechanisms to manage those emotions.” 

 Celia Silverstein, a junior, has noticed that “social media has definitely gotten more involved in our lives, and this has led to increased insecurities” among her peers.  

To counter the impacts of this, Ms. Repp recommends “get[ting] as close as you can to [a normal life] safely. If you always hung out at a lunch table [with your friends], it would be really cool to get chairs and a driveway and be six feet apart and at least still be able to see each other and talk.” 

It is especially difficult for students that take social distancing measures seriously to see their peers not doing the same. Mamie Rushkoff noted that “the pandemic splits up friends. Some people I know are really safe, and others are completely reckless. I am on the safe side, and personally I have lost some friendships and overall respect for people I know behaving like COVID can’t affect them in any way.” 

Celia Silverstein feels that she has been “doubting a lot of relationships with people because of less contact with them.” Olivia Seidenberg, a freshman, has also noticed a “considerable change in the mood of her friends,” feeling that “it has definitely affected some people in my friend group.”

Of course, the pandemic has created unfavorable conditions for people all over the world. But even when times are as tough as these, there is always hope. As Ms. Repp tells her students, “Be hopeful. Others care about you. And the adults in your life would love to be helpful and are willing to hear what you need.” Ms. Grassia agrees: “The best advice I can give you is to ask for help when you need it. And do not feel afraid to label the emotions that you’re feeling. That’s a lot of my mindfulness training coming to the front, but I can tell you that identifying ‘I feel lonely,’ and sitting with that, is actually much healthier for me than denying it or pretending it doesn’t exist. Be okay with naming your emotions, whatever they are. And reach out for help when you need it.”