Back to school – with Covid in the background

Throughout the pandemic I was one of many thousands of mental health professionals trying to understand and help young people cope with the impact Covid was having on their lives. I have therefore been receptive to articles from a variety of sources on the topic.

In a report released at the start of this year, the APA detailed an emerging mental health crisis amongst children and called for a range of programs to better address the issue in schools. More recently, the NY Times did extensive survey of school counselors see “362 School Counselors on the Pandemic’s Effect on Children:” Nearly all the counselors, (94%), said their students were showing more signs of anxiety and depression than before the pandemic. Eighty-eight percent said students were having more trouble regulating their emotions. There was a noted increase in self-harm behaviors and almost three-quarters of the counselors said students were having more difficulty solving conflicts with friends.

One interesting finding of this and a related survey, is that the kids who spent more time learning online were worse off (even in hybrid environments) in comparison to those spending time in school.

While our focus has been on the impact of the pandemic, recent surveys on teen emotional health have shown worrying trends for more than a decade. It’s the kind of issue that tends to get pushed aside unless brought up in terms of a mass shooting or another headline grabbing event. My own thinking on this issue, is that much of this trend can be attributed to the increase in time spent on “smart phones” and engaged in social media. The effect this pull has on us all is hard to overstate, but I believe that today’s young people who have no experience of life before the mobile internet are particularly vulnerable to its pernicious impact on social anxiety and other feelings of insecurity. I agree with the sentiments expressed by Dr. Melissa Dennison a pediatrician serving a rural Kentucky community who stated she regularly shares with families her opinions about the need for their children to put down their devices, exercise and spend time outdoors. The advice seems particularly apropos here in the urban setting as well.

Along similar lines, comes a welcome recommendation of school counselors that students reduce use of technology, participate in more extracurricular activities as well as spend time away from academics in order to engage in fun real time activities with family and friends. Personally, I regularly counsel parents to set limits on screen times, encourage their kids to hang out with friends and have specific times set for family social activities.

From the small sample of young people that I know either through counseling or the children of family and friends, I believe that those who cultivate a range of interests and participate in activities are more likely to weather the vicissitudes of adolescence and the specific challenges presented by the pandemic. I’m not sure what comes first, generally good mental health or involvement with friends and school activities, but I can’t imagine that engaging with peers and cultivating one’s interest would not have an overwhelmingly positive affect.

With that in mind, please see the article by Katherine Young, daughter of a good friend of my wife. On occasions when we had a chance to speak, I was struck by Katherine’s generally positive attitude and wide range of interests. I thought it would be worthwhile to ask her to write a small piece about her outlook on the pandemic (this will be coming soon).

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