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Mental Health Lessons from COVID-19

Why some students are doing better during this crisis and what we may learn from their experiences. 

By all measures, this is a difficult time. We’re not surprised when we receive texts and calls from friends and family feeling the new levels of anxiety that COVID-19 has created. I’ve experienced the range of emotions myself over the last month. Having worked with teens for most of my professional life, I’m acutely aware of the many ways this time may be impacting our kids specifically. Risk factors, such as loss of structure, isolation from peers, and excessive time to ruminate in unhealthy ways, are all at play. 

That’s why I was surprised to learn from a close friend and colleague who practices child and adolescent psychiatry that many of her patients were actually doing better in this time of crisis. She is noticing markedly improved mental health outcomes for many of her patients, and dozens of her colleagues have shared similar stories. As a counselor and educational psychologist, this counterintuitive result piqued my curiosity. Why are certain people, otherwise super stressed and even with clinical conditions, doing better now? And what can we learn from that?

Why are some struggling teens doing better right now?

The slower pace of this new world is serving many who were struggling to keep up

Those of us who work with teens or have teenage children of our own know that being stressed and overscheduled has become the norm for far too many of them. Today’s teens face high expectations in a fast-paced world. Enter COVID-19 and, within days, the pace of life has changed dramatically. This forced reduction in activity is allowing many students to catch their breath, get some sleep, spend more time with their family and their pets. As one writer for the Washington Post put it, “their once overscheduled lives unexpectedly ground to a halt, and, while jarring, the break may be a good thing.” The decline in activities and busyness has helped many find a new sense of calm. 

The Fear of Missing Out, or “FOMO,” which had become an epidemic among teens constantly on social media, now seems to be less of an issue for some students. FOMO is a source of anxiety but it ceases to exist when kids are literally missing nothing. Nobody’s Instagram feed is that amazing. For those who are trying to keep up, there’s a sense of relief in that lack of competition.

Rising above one’s fears

Experiencing fear and anxiety can be isolating, particularly if others do not validate these emotions. Some students have long lived with a great deal of anxiety, coloring their inner lives, and suddenly there is a heightened level of anxiety all around. It’s more normalized. Some students who had long experienced debilitating anxiety about things that might happen in the future are now feeling a relative sense of calm. In this sense, they are realizing that they are better resourced than they once imagined to face challenging situations like our present. And in some cases their imaginations served up a vision of the future that is far worse than our lived reality. Our imaginations can serve us, or they can shift us firmly into a fear-based mode. We have some measure of control over how we use our imaginations, and what thoughts we invite to dwell in our inner worlds. Some students are learning how to achieve a greater measure of calm, even in this challenging time. 

Social anxiety and performance pressures are way down

Current social distancing protocols have taken immediate pressure off of students who struggle with social anxiety. Some socially anxious teens would rather not be out in crowds, feeling judged, or potentially even bullied. Students who have body image issues may feel better out of the public eye, removed from the perceived judgments of others. Other teens simply prefer to interact via their screens, away from people and social demands. For better or for worse, our current environment is allowing them that opportunity. 

More time with parents can be therapeutic

Shelter in place and social distancing measures are driving students to spend more time with their parents than they have in a long time, and some students are benefiting from that extra level of support and connection. Suddenly, everyone’s home for dinner and the opportunity to reconnect is there. Having everyone under one roof all the time may drive us crazy at points throughout the day, but some students are actually happier with this increased contact, as many don’t usually get to spend that much uninterrupted quality time with their family. 

Our illusions of control are breaking down

One feature of many mental health issues is a need to exercise control over aspects of life that feel uncertain or scary. Some students who had fallen into a pattern of attempting to control every detail of life are now, perhaps happily, forced to face the reality that there are forces at play bigger than they are. Truly recognizing that certain things are out of your hands can be a relief: “I don’t worry about this, because this is completely out of my control.” Or, as many have commented in the last few weeks: it’s not that we’ve lost control – we’ve merely lost our illusion of control. Of course, we can – and should – take appropriate steps to keep ourselves and others safe, especially now, but we can also settle our minds a bit if we stop trying to control things we never had the ability to control in the first place.

In certain cases, students are affected by parents’ need to control. As parents, we all naturally consider our childrens’ futures, which can in some cases lead to worry and a need to control things that may positively and negatively affect our kids in the long run. In the current environment, as parents are forced to relinquish control over schedules and activities, students may be feeling a bit less pressure and more autonomy.

So these are a few of the reasons why some students are thriving: the slower pace, the decreased competition and performance pressures, the increased time with parents. But, we know that many are still struggling, some perhaps more than ever. What can we learn from this time that might help all of us, and what can do to manage the natural ups and downs it will bring for everyone? 

Lessons to take forward

For students who feed on a faster pace, ample structure, social connections, and the ability to control many aspects of their lives, there’s a real need to recenter. Things that had fueled them are now less available. Students like this might also be feeling heightened pressure and stress over all the unknowns around college admissions, testing, internships, jobs, and more. For students who are struggling with these issues, time in nature, moving their bodies and getting outside of their heads can be very therapeutic. Advice like this may have seemed literally impossible to activate just a few weeks ago. What busy teen in our high-pressured world had time for a nature walk? Now, suddenly, they do. 

Whether through walks, meditation, movement, or some other practice, the ability to be comfortable in our own company, to self-regulate our thoughts and feelings, is a skill that typically requires some training and cultivation. Many students haven’t yet fully developed this capacity. And, while it certainly can’t be developed overnight, we can all take advantage of the silver linings, like more time at home, to fuel our sense of resilience. 

Most importantly, we need to know when our teens need help and, thankfully, help is available even in our new remote reality. Social isolation is hard for most mammals and, as the time in isolation increases, stress will typically follow. For students who are struggling and could benefit from some support, many schools are offering remote counseling options and therapists are seeing clients using remote platforms.

We are in the midst of a massive social experiment, and there may be some lessons we learn and integrate when all of this is over. Will we reexamine the stressors, the pacing, and scheduling of life having experienced this giant pause? Will we learn from this time together, and this time apart? We must support each other through this time, help those who are struggling, and take note of those whose conditions have actually improved. There is a balance that we need to achieve to optimize happiness and satisfaction, and this experiment may in fact provide us with clues about what we individually need to feel fulfilled and healthy for years to come.

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  • Claire Cafaro

    Beautiful article and interesting perspectives to consider. Thank you, Jed!