Growing Up, Apart: COVID and Children’s Mental Health

Throughout the past year, the coronavirus pandemic has drastically altered lives across the world; people have lost their jobs, lost loved ones, and had to put their lives on hold. That feeling of going on pause has especially affected young people, who feel removed from some of the most formative years of their lives. It’s no wonder these feelings of isolation and helplessness have taken a toll on child and adolescent mental health. 

study from three months ago published by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) noted a marked increase in children being taken to the ER for mental health concerns since the pandemic began. The study noted a 24% increase in children 5-11 being presented for care and a startling 31% increase in 12–17-year-olds.

This trend has also been seen locally in southwest Michigan.

Katie Manuel is a Licensed Master Social Worker at the Family Health Center in Kalamazoo. She’s been a therapist for children and adolescents for over a decade and has seen firsthand how the lifestyle changes that COVID has demanded have affected the children in her community.

The children Manuel works with are “much more isolated” since the pandemic began, she reported, “spending most of their time on social media, playing video games, on their phones, or watching YouTube.” Manuel said the isolation and high levels of screen time have led to children falling behind in school to the point that some worry if they will advance to the next grade.

In interviewing high school students striking similarities arose, centering on an overwhelming sense of loss, not only loss of lives, but for many young people, a loss of childhood and innocence. 

As one 18-year-old told Watershed Voice, “I matured and grew up twice as fast—against my will, too.” The intense stress that comes with such an upheaval of their day-to-day lives is something that most young people (or adults, for that matter) have never experienced. The amount of self-control, discipline, and commitment required to get oneself through this period in history is something that, frankly, cannot and should not be expected of children and adolescents. And yet, these expectations and more were set upon today’s youth, who found the only option to be a practically overnight transition into adulthood. Kids as young as 12 or 13, now wholly alone in responsibility for their relationships, mental health, and education, felt unexpectedly thrust into adulthood.

The transition to life online has been difficult for many, but learning virtually has been a massive challenge for today’s youth. Manuel said her clients “all agree that they have too much work and less opportunity to get help and ask questions. They are also much more distracted at home than they would be at school.”

Without regular face-to-face interaction with their teachers, many kids said they felt left to figure school out on their own. “They are overwhelmed with how much motivation has to come from them and how self-driven they have to be.”

One 16-year-old said, for many, “the biggest issue is the monotony. When I’m doing the exact same thing every single day, it begins to feel pointless.” In many areas, online school takes the form of Google Meet or Zoom lectures, one for each class period, seven class periods a day, four or five days a week. This ends up amounting to a solid 6 or 7 hours spent on live video calls every day, which can be exhausting and draining for students and teachers. Add onto that hours of homework, also done online, and it’s apparent why so many are barely keeping their heads above water. Even for those who are generally exceptional students, the past year has taken a toll; one 17-year-old said, “as someone who thrives in a classroom setting, it’s been a real challenge to motivate myself, get work done on time, and feel pride in my work.” Without the standard academic conventions students are used to, the educational game they used to excel at feels like something completely foreign.

This feeling has led to an increase in both depression and anxiety symptoms in Manuel’s clients.

“Many feel hopeless and helpless,” she said. “Their depression has led to shutting down, avoiding and lacking motivation. Kids’ and adolescents’ anxiety is attributed to the unknowns of the pandemic, when this will end, and managing the demands of school.”

Many youths are not socializing nearly as much as they did before the pandemic either, according to Manuel.

“Many kids and adolescents say that they do not have friends and are lonely. But many report that they don’t enjoy FaceTime or Duo and would rather not do them. Many report that it is much more work to maintain friendships right now, so they aren’t putting in the effort.”

Without opportunities to talk to friends about what they are going through, many of the children that Manuel works with feel alone in their struggles to cope.

But Manuel and her colleagues are trying to change that. She and another clinician recently started a virtual kids group focusing on depression, anxiety, and stress earlier this month to give local kids a chance to talk about how they feel and to help them see they aren’t alone.

But far and away the most disturbing effect of COVID, according to Manuel, is the increase in thoughts of suicide. Manuel has seen a significant increase in this area in her clients in the past year. “Many adolescents report that they cannot find joy,” she said. “They feel trapped and lonely, leading to thoughts of suicide.”                      

Fortunately, there is help for people of any age who are having thoughts of self-harm and that help is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. St. Joseph County residents can call Community Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services of St. Joseph County. Their number is 1-800-622-3967. In Kalamazoo County, the number to call to reach crisis services at Integrated Services of Kalamazoo is 1-888-373-6200 and in Calhoun County, the number for Summit Pointe is 1-800-632-5449.

There are effective treatments for depression, anxiety and even for suicidal thoughts, but asking for help as soon as possible is important. Like any other health condition, the sooner the problem is addressed, the easier it is to recover.

While many adults have reacted with anger, frustration, and resignation, young people quickly became accepting of this new normal. Having never lived in the stable normalcy of the “good old days,” adolescents told us they understand the world is an oftentimes terrifying, constantly changing place. This lens has allowed young people to use the pandemic as an opportunity to better prepare themselves for the future they hope to change. 

For every generation, adolescence has been time spent learning about those around you and the world at large; it’s the point in one’s life when you grow and change into an adult, fueled by new friendships and experiences. But for the youth of today, the past year has contained almost none of that. And so, the usual growth and discovery outward into the world at large has stagnated. But as we spoke to young people about their experience, it became clear how this time has not been wasted. Despite the immense struggle of isolation, poor mental health, and compounding responsibility, one of the worst years in recent history has been taken by many as an opportunity. A chance for self-discovery and introspection that provides a far different, although nonetheless invaluable perspective for the youth of today. The pandemic will almost certainly have lasting negative effects for those who lived through it, but this doesn’t have to be the only result.

Eempathy, self-sufficiency, and strength developed over the course of the lockdown, rather than irrationality and anger, could very well be the guiding light of the next generation.

Zoe Thomas is a student at Portage Northern High School in Portage, Michigan, and is a Hoppin and Andrews Elementary alum. Zoe is passionate about political science and journalism. Zoe’s father Charles D. Thomas is a writer, psychotherapist, and Main Street Media Group board member who made Three Rivers his home for over a decade. Feedback is welcome at Charles@charlesdthomas.com.