When the pandemic shut down Florida schools last year, it was thought to be a short-term precaution to get the spread of the virus under control. So Maya, a 17-year-old student at Sarasota High School, reacted to the closure like a typical teenager.
“At first, it was actually kind of fun because it was something we’ve never done before,” she said.
But as weeks turned into months, Maya became very depressed. She couldn’t see her friends, or go to work at her part-time job. And even though she’s back in school now, the impact of long-term isolation has stayed with her.
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“It can make you kind of lonely,” said Maya. WUSF is not using her last name because she is a minor. “Some of my friends, they can’t go out anymore because their parents don’t let them because of COVID. Like, you can only text them which isn’t like that physical contact of seeing your friends.”
The pandemic has had taken a toll on the mental health of teenagers. And the rise in depression and anxiety comes at a significant age in their development, experts say.
Florida was one of the earliest states to resume in-person learning last August but students returned with restrictions, like mandatory mask orders, social distancing and canceled activities.
Allison Phinney, a counselor at Sarasota High School, says the pandemic has taken away key moments in kids’ lives that give joy and meaning.
“It’s almost like losing a sense of self,” she said. “You’ve worked so hard and you have to stay in your car at graduation, you don’t get a prom and you don’t get the class trip. I feel like kids had such a hard time saying their feelings because people were dying, so I think they’re less likely to ask for help.”
Allison Phinney, a counselor at Sarasota High School, says more teens are suffering from anxiety and depression because of the pandemic.
And Phinney says kids who have remained with virtual learning have experienced their own set of challenges.
“You can be in your pajamas in a dark room and then have access to your phone and social media and gaming,” she said. “It’s really hard as a teen because the parts of the brain aren’t developed for impulsivity and control to sit there and be in their classes all day.”
According to a new report that tracks insurance claims, counseling services for teenagers skyrocketed last year amid the pandemic. And the Centers for Disease Control found that the amount of mental health emergency room visits by adolescents increased 31 percent between March and October 2020 — compared with the same months in 2019.
“I think what’s happening is now we’re seeing the long-term results,” said Todd Shapiro, director for school-based services at the mental health organization, First Step of Sarasota.
“Kids are feeling lonely, isolated, and depressed,” he said. “And let’s say you spent eighth grade at home and now you’re going to high school. That’s a very anxiety producing transition, even in the best of situations.”
And as often is the case, poorer families have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. Many adolescents have had family members get sick or lose their jobs. All of these things are really hard for everyone in the family — teens included.
“I’d say there’s definitely a pressure that the kids feel of not being able to afford the same things and having to cut back on a lot of basic things,” said Michaela Cook, a school-based therapist at Booker Middle School in Sarasota.
“A lot of parents are struggling and then of course the kids feel that pressure as well,” she added. “I’ve had kids talk about how they feel responsible to get their own jobs when they can to help their families out and unfortunately it puts pressure on them to have to grow up a little bit more quickly than normal.”
Lydia MacCarthy, a school-based therapist at Sarasota’s McIntosh Middle School says pandemic related issues have also impacted the ability of children to focus. It’s not unusual for kids to start mentally checking out of school in April as they anticipate summer break, but she says this year that started happening in January.
First Step of Sarasota has worked with thousands of children across Sarasota county with its high-school student assistance program, the Peer2Peer program and in-school mental health services.
“Which is, I don’t want to be here anymore, I don’t want to come to school, I don’t want to do the work, there’s no point,” she said. “And the behaviors for the kids are also expected to continue to be on point, you know, be prepared, show up with all of your supplies, make sure your mask is on the whole time you’re in school. So, the pressure for everybody to just continue and pretend like COVID doesn’t exist is a little mind boggling.”
MacCarthy says the frustration kids are feeling likely has a lot to do with the loss of connection. At this stage in their development, peers become a bigger part of their lives and they aren’t seeking advice from mom and dad as much. They are also still learning how to pick up on body language and social cues. But in the time of COVID, many of those signals are literally hidden behind a mask.
“A lot more of my kids have actually mentioned that they feel like the adults are mad at them,” MacCarthy said. “Even though we do our best to try to express feelings and emotions with just our eyes, kids haven’t quite learned how to pick up on those cues yet, they’re more attuned to the whole face.”
Many school districts are aware of the pandemic’s mental health impact on kids and are working with community organizations to offer mental health services.
Todd Shapiro, at First Step of Sarasota, says the counseling organization has worked with thousands of children across the county with its high-school student assistance program, the Peer2Peer program and in-school mental health services.
“Typically, with insurance, families go out into the community to try to get private therapy and a lot of children go without services when they need them,” he said. “The beauty of this school-based program is it removes all the barriers to getting services. So, there’s no financial issues and we have somebody right in there who can see the kids immediately or within a few weeks.”
As for Maya, the student, she’s says some days are still hard but she’s doing better now. And she had some advice for adults.
“If you see your child like maybe struggling, ask them how they’re doing,” she said. “Say that you’re proud of them or like, ‘You’re doing great.’ ‘You’re going to get through it.’ Because sometimes all you need is just that.”