Isolated Minds- Mental health declines as the COVID era persists
In the midst of a lengthy pandemic that has upended life, the stresses of isolation and unpredictability have compounded for many. Prolonged time indoors and the lack of physical and emotional connections compared to pre-coronavirus times have caused a surge in mental health issues. From elderly citizens experiencing serious anxiety for the first time to adolescents trapped in toxic living arrangements, few have been spared from mental distress, and those with pre-existing conditions have suffered exponentially.
Most teens were already stressed prior to the pandemic; the combined pressures of school, family, and friends are often enough to put young adults on edge as it is. With the onset of the public health crisis, new concerns about the safety of loved ones and conflicting medical information have taken root in the minds of adolescents. For many, the sudden transition to remote learning was the breaking point. Teens who relied on school in order to socialize were left without this valuable setting. These emotions are not unique to teens; adults across the world have expressed a growing concern over limited meaningful interactions, a result of scores of companies switching to a work-from-home model.
Dylan Nahsjun ‘21, a student in the Standley Lake IB Program, spoke on the sense of loss that for him, has largely defined this year.
“Because I’m in the IB program, I was just surrounded [by] a bunch of people and I felt like I was a part of that community before the pandemic. Now, because I’m a remote-only student, I feel like I’m not able to be a part of that community anymore, and I kind of feel shut off and isolated,” Nahsjun said.
Social media has offered a significant outlet for Generation Z during this disconnected time. While experts recognize prolonged social media use as detrimental to overall well being, many teens have found it to be one of the only ways to decompress. The understanding communities that many students sought in clubs, sports, and school were suspended during COVID, creating a surge in demand for digital connections. The ability to openly converse about the various difficulties of life and communicate with others experiencing similar troubles has enabled many to understand that they aren’t alone. The togetherness and relatability of social media has allowed teens to alleviate loneliness during a time of uncertainty.
Yet, despite the relief that apps such as TikTok and Instagram provide, the toxicity of interactions on these platforms has the potential to worsen mental health. The rise of video and photo-based apps has shifted disproportionate focus to physical appearance and cherry-picked, aesthetic snapshots of life. In particular, the sharing of photos with friends can intensify feelings of isolation for those remaining at home.
“I’ve been trying to use it [social media] a little less,” Nahsun said. “I don’t exactly feel like just seeing everybody’s posts about being back to school and just seeing all the stuff I’m missing out on,” Nahsjun said.
Since social media interactions are largely anonymous, the emotional feedback loop between users is weak. Without the guilt or consequences of a live conversation, ill-intentioned commenters can easily inflict low self-esteem onto others. Social media platforms create an open forum, where anyone can say anything, typically without oversight. This lack of moderation has allowed many toxic relationships to go unchecked. Without face-to-face interactions at school or work, it is difficult to bring issues to the appropropriate individuals.
Rising levels of anxiety and stress have prompted many to take on new hobbies in an attempt to keep their minds occupied. Activities such as needlecrafts, baking, painting, and writing have allowed for free flowing expression during a time when creativity seems like the last priority. These hobbies can improve people's well being and stimulate their brains as they learn new skills. Writing down the thoughts and emotions caused by COVID in a journal format, or physical activities such as running, also provide a medium for individuals to clear out the noise of mounting worries and recalibrate their emotional compass.
For each person who turns to healthy coping mechanisms, there are others who attempt to ignore their mental health through substance abuse. Substance abuse should not be taken lightly, and isolation has made it difficult for loved ones to intervene. Notably, drugs that compromise respiratory functions, such as nicotine, marijuana, and cocaine, can contribute to COVID incidence and poor outcomes. A Stanford University study found that participants ages 13 to 24 who smoked or used e-cigarettes were 5 times as likely to display COVID symptoms as their non-smoking or vaping counterparts. For those struggling with drug or alcohol dependence, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers a free, confidential, and bilingual helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).
For many people the stress, anxiety and overwhelming emotions did not end the moment restrictions were relaxed. The stress of COVID-19 remains a prominent problem in our society today. Each individual reacts to stress uniquely, but common symptoms include headaches, numbness, frustration, back pains, stomach aches and feelings of helplessness. It is important to note that stress in teens and young adults may manifest itself very differently than in older adults and parents.
Similar to the wide array of symptoms, each individual benefits from an individualized coping strategy. According to the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), COVID related stress can be eased through familiarity with symptoms and a treatment plan in the event of illness.
Of the many different treatment resources available, the most accessible can be found here at Standley Lake. Over the past few months, the SLHS counseling department has been championing new initiatives to support as many students as possible. These changes came as the result of the School Health Professional Grant, a financial award that has allowed SLHS, among other local schools, to expand counseling staff.
“We have a Jefferson Center for Mental Health therapist that’s in-house, in our building part-time, Mrs. Robin Matthias, and she does have room right now on her caseload,” said Sarah Puff, counselor at Standley Lake.
These new services will continue to evolve as the school allocates the remaining grant funds. Recently, the counseling department was also able to hire a prevention and intervention specialist, Jen Wilson.
“She’s actually going to be helping us do something that we haven’t been able to do in years, which is run groups around anxiety, depression, [and] executive functioning, which [are] some things that a lot of our students really struggle with, especially now,” Puff said.
Students looking to join a support group or meet with Wilson individually can schedule an appointment through the SLHS counseling website.
The past several months have served as a reminder that the first and most important step in navigating mental health is to acknowledge feelings and to recognize that emotional responses are individual. Take a moment today to reach out to loved ones, ask for help, and remember that the Gator family extends beyond the classroom.
Livie Fowler | Sejal Goud | Sarah Hesser | Kaylynn Tran | Isabella Tucker-Sandoval