Stuck at home during the coronavirus pandemic, teenagers are facing a sense of loss that adults removed from the high school experience might not fully understand: the disappointment of missing out on milestones.
Senior spring break trips. Final theater performances. Spring sports seasons. Prom. Graduation ceremonies.
The abrupt cancellation of these rites of passage has left a void for students like Noa Alterman. The 18-year-old senior at Cranbrook Kingswood said she knows that in the middle of this deadly pandemic, many people have it much worse.
“But it’s also hard when you’ve gone through 12 years of school looking forward to being able to graduate and being able to go to prom and going on a spring break trip with all of your friends. And it’s just taken away in five seconds by a very unforeseen circumstance,” she said.
“It’s just been hard to kind of stay positive and stay optimistic when you don’t know if there’s anything to really look forward to as of right now.”
Mental health professionals say this feeling — that there’s nothing to look forward to — should be acknowledged as a form of grief. Teens have been robbed of milestones and cut off from face-to-face interactions with their peers, and the fallout can be devastating for them.
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With those concerns and other effects of the crisis in mind, school psychologists and counselors are trying to help students maintain their well-being remotely. These professionals are offering Zoom chats, phone calls, webinars, mental health help lines and, in some cases, home check-ins through a window.
Lauren Mangus, director of the School and Community Psychology program at Wayne State University’s College of Education, said as summer nears, districts are up against the uncertainty of what the next academic year will look like. In the meantime, school mental health professionals are trying to engage with at-risk students and encourage positive coping skills and self-care.
“We want to promote resiliency for kids,” Mangus said.
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Concerns about equity
For many students, school provides their only interactions with individuals who support their mental health outside of their families, said Elizabeth Koschmann, program director of Transforming Research into Action to Improve the Lives of Students (TRAILS) at the University of Michigan.
TRAILS trains school professionals across the state in evidence-based cognitive behavioral therapy and mindfulness practices.
“In terms of mental health care, we know that already before COVID, 75% of kids who are accessing mental health care got that care specifically through their school. So what’s happening now when kids can’t access that care?” Koschmann said.
Counselors across the state are noticing an increase in anxiety and depression, according to Monica Fugedi, a board member of the Michigan School Counselor Association and a wellness counselor at Wylie E. Groves High School.
“Many of our students are isolated with little socialization, and some are in situations that are not ideal, causing more threats to mental well-being,” she said.
Districts such as Detroit Public Schools Community District and Novi Community School District have set up mental health helplines for students and families during the coronavirus crisis.
Staff at DPSCD have also been proactive in making wellness calls, said Anisha Noel, school social work supervisor.
“We’re keeping the pulse of our students and families by reaching out,” she said.
As mental health services for kids shift online, professionals worry that gaps in equity will exclude students who don’t have access to technology. Community partnerships in districts like Detroit are helping to equip students with laptops and internet service. TRAILS has printed out resources that have been distributed to families at meal pickup locations. Counselors and social workers are also offering their assistance over the phone.
It will be imperative that school psychologists continue to check in on families as the pandemic wears on, said Jim Corr, president of the Michigan Association of School Psychologists and a school psychologist at the Traverse Bay Area Intermediate School District.
“My concern is really access and equity,” he said. “We need to be continuing to reach out even if they offer us a soft pass or a hard pass. That’s sort of our first level of intervention.”
Outside of school, some teens are leaning on peer-led support groups to help them stay positive during the pandemic.
Alterman, the senior at Cranbrook, looks forward to weekly Zoom calls with Teen Talks, a support program put on by the teen mental health campaign UMatter.
Before the pandemic, Alterman said the conversations with other students from across metro Detroit affirmed that she wasn’t alone in the anxiety she was experiencing. The group’s recent talks have remained uplifting, she said, with a focus on how teens are staying happy and what they’re doing for others.
“I think it’s just nice to have the space to check in on each other, especially right now when a lot of people’s mental health is something that we’re worried about,” Alterman said.
Adalyna Mislevy, a sophomore at Dakota High School, has found a similar community at The SHED, a Shelby Township teen center from KnowResolve, a nonprofit that promotes youth mental health.
Weekly virtual meetings with The SHED help fill the need for social interactions during the stay-home order, Mislevy said. The teens recently held an online talent show.
Mislevy had a lot to look forward before the coronavirus reached Michigan. She had recently landed her first lead in the school play, “Alice in Wonderland.” She had planned to attend graduation parties and celebrate her 16th birthday in June.
She wants adults to realize that the coronavirus shutdown has taken a “huge toll” on young people’s lives.
“So I guess be delicate with how a lot of teens are going through this and coping with it,” she said. “Try to spend as much time as you can with your family because that’s really important. Try not to stress your kids out about it.”
‘Try to move forward’
Boredom is the buzzword for many of the teens who Erin MacLeod-Smith works with as a mental health therapist at the Beaumont Child and Adolescent Health Care Center in Westland. Without social interactions, she said, their motivation to do school work has tanked.
“The isolation and the motivation for the future has really decreased,” MacLeod-Smith said.
For those already prone to anxiety or depression, “not having things to look forward to is really going to increase those symptoms,” she said.
MacLeod-Smith reminds teens that their lives will eventually return to some version of normal. She’s been encouraging her clients to pick up positive coping skills, like meditation, painting or exercise.
Training for football has kept 17-year-old Jordan Wilson focused on his future. The junior at Skyline High School in Ann Arbor is gunning for a scholarship to a Division I school — the University of Oregon is top on his list — and he’s been bummed to see his summer football camps and college visits canceled because of COVID-19.
But Wilson, a wide receiver and defensive back, hopes that taking advantage of his downtime by training will give him an advantage once recruiting picks back up.
“I just try to find things that I can do and just try to move forward,” he said. “If we just sit here and be sad about it, then it’s not really healthy. If you just find a way and do what you can, you’re doing something.”
If you are in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255. To chat with a crisis counselor, click here.
Angie Jackson is a Free Press staff writer and Report for America corps member. Contact Angie: firstname.lastname@example.org; 313-222-1850. Follow her on Twitter: @AngieJackson23