Noah Miller, a senior at Mountain View High School, struggled with the academic stress of attending high school in the Bay Area. Like many teenagers, his mental health worsened as he transitioned to online learning amid the pandemic.
“It felt like this constant rotating cycle: confusion and sadness and anger and depression and then random bouts of feeling really good and then feeling isolated and lonely again,” said Miller, who serves on the Teenage Advisory Council at the Community Health Awareness Council.
Attending high school in person creates space away from parents, giving teenagers the opportunity to develop their social skills and a separate sense of identity from their families. Since students moved to virtual learning, this critical developmental opportunity has been impacted, according to Carrie Shulman, clinical manager of the outpatient After-School Program Interventions and Resilience Education (ASPIRE) program at El Camino Health.
ASPIRE is an eight- to 10-week outpatient program that teaches adolescents communication and stress-tolerance skills, among others, to cope with anxiety and depression. A part of the ASPIRE program that has become particularly important during the lockdown is the idea of radical acceptance and distress tolerance, meaning if you can’t change your situation, then accept it and develop techniques to take better care of yourself, Shulman said. For example, living in an enclosed environment with family members can challenge an adolescent’s ability to grow.
Since Miller and his family transitioned into quarantine, the stress of working and living all in the same place pervaded their house.
“It made it difficult to come into my house as a safe space and as a refuge where I could relax because there was such a stressful environment because of everyone being overworked and the difficulties with setting boundaries,” he said.
Disruption in stability
William Blair, wellness coordinator for the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District, noted a decrease in students self-reporting their mental health issues, largely due to distance learning.
“It’s important to understand that we have less referrals, but they tend to be a lot more intense in nature,” he said.
Teachers are the frontline for noticing changes in students’ behaviors, Blair said, and they refer a large number of students to his office. The transition to online school makes noticing such changes difficult, and students are no longer able to walk into a physical office to seek services.
The resources and programming offered have shifted to better support students as they cope with the effects of the pandemic.
Finding a language to communicate with parents, setting boundaries and creating a schedule are important coping skills. Shulman said ASPIRE emphasizes helping patients deal with pandemic stressors.
“Parents have had to relax some of the very strict limits they have placed in the past on screens,” she said. “One of the things we talk about a lot is the type of screen time.”
Rather than scrolling through social media and gaming for hours, Shulman advised parents to encourage their teens to set up a virtual call with friends or schedule a Zoom game session that facilitates social interaction.
“Also encouraging whenever they can to use non-screen-type interactions like even playing board games with each other … so that they get a break from being on the screen all the time is important,” she added.
On his own, Miller aims to designate time out of his day to take a walk. Especially with school fully online, actively choosing to disconnect from electronics and be present in the moment with himself and with nature has helped him over the past year.
“For the most part, we teens appreciate the adults around us in our lives a lot more than we give them credit for, and just because we aren’t necessarily forthcoming with that information, it doesn’t mean we don’t appreciate everybody around us and everything they’re doing for us,” Miller said.