Mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic

Noah Maldonado, Editor in chief

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 50-percent of all lifetime mental illness starts at the age of 14, which brings into question the current isolation many students face with remote learning. Mental health, however, often is a talking point to reopen schools across the nation while also carrying stigmas and historical denial from all sides of the aisle.
Amy Schierbaum, a social worker at South, explains her concerns with how the pandemic may or may not condition students to think.
“I worry about the ability for students to get comfortable with not coming to school and I worry about how much more that might debilitate them if and when we return,” Schierbaum said.
Schierbaum points out a statistic that existed even before the COVID-19 virus struck the United States: students have a lot of anxiety. According to NAMI, 7-percent of students face anxiety every year. Likewise, in a May 4 Washington Post article, online chats and therapy sessions reportedly experienced an uptick in clients. Talkspace, for example, saw a 65-percent jump in people contacting for therapy. Understanding the prevalence of skyrocketing mental health crises, the pandemic’s ability to continue exacerbating it is quite worrisome.
Jennifer Kostelz, a social worker, shares a similar worry for existing mental health conditions as Schierbaum.
“I think the pandemic is going to have a big impact on those kids that already struggle to come to school because coming to school is a habit. Avoidance is the worst thing you can do to help your anxiety. The more you avoid an anxiety trigger, the worse the anxiety trigger actually gets when you encounter it the next time,” Kostelz said.
As a means of encouraging students to think more positively and courageously when faced with challenges, social workers have in place the Social Emotional Learning (SEL) program. According to Schierbaum, it gives South’s social workers a way of checking in on student mental health and to teach mindfulness.
SEL’s lessons are a result of committee research conducted by social workers at the district level. From there, lessons are created and distributed among the schools. However, the lessons apply differently with each school as all schools have their own struggles in emotional traits.
Kostelz says social workers use the results of a Panorama survey students take each year to determine what the student population needs development in. The results of the last survey showed a flaw in student grit or perseverance when faced with a challenge or setback.
As a consequence of the pandemic, communication enters a new era. Typically, in-person students could go to their guidance counselors or deans with relative ease, but with remote learning separating faculty and students, altered dynamics force emails and other means of electronic messaging.
Kate Kendall, a psychologist, sees a complex field of circumstances. As South’s school psychologist, Kendall qualifies students for an IEP or special education. Kendall describes how COVID-19 changed the approach to diagnosis.
“For the most part, we just kind of go over what teachers have been noticing in class. It’s hard because some students don’t put their videos on, so we kind of go off what the students say,” Kendall said.
Students have their respective say in the matter, and senior Carter Hanson shares his experience with the pandemic’s grasp on emotional wellness.
“I would say that [the pandemic] has led me to being more stressed and I can be a very anxious person. I would say it’s made it worse, but it’s definitely not getting better during this,” Hanson said.
On the other side of the remote world, senior Joe Busse explains how he found a niche in distance learning.
“For me personally, I’ve gotten used to remote learning. Back when we first started, it was a struggle to get work in on time and even have enough motivation to do work. Even though I’ve gotten used to it, there are some assignments that I just forget to do,” Busse said.
Student outreach to social workers has altered greatly in the past few months. In the last few weeks of winter when students remained in school, the means of reaching social workers was easier through student services. However, now communication is limited through Zoom and emails. Schierbaum recounts the numbers she saw and now witnesses as students learn remotely.
“I would say in relation with what it was like when I was in-person in the Fall and Winter students were definitely reaching out a lot more. I saw a lot more students coming down to Student Services with requests to see a social worker,” Schierbaum said.
South isn’t alone in mental health conflicts that arise in the area. According to Kendall, neighboring schools also grapple with similar issues.
“A lot of students feel like they’re struggling. A lot of parents see their students struggling, and with us working in the building it’s difficult to see students have difficulties and be able to support them one hundred percent,” Kendall said.
While the nation has seen numerous spikes and more restrictions placed on the public, families haven’t had the chance to connect as much as in the past. The same goes for all the social dynamics of life as restaurants close in-person dining and other community events are put on hold to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Celebrities and people at home are finding ways to entertain themselves and focus on self-help, though one example of emotional outreach shows in a book published by musical artist Lady Gaga.
Gaga’s “Channel Kindness: Stories of Kindness and Community” serves to remind its readers that amiability can save lives and better the days of so many people. Amidst a global health crisis, it can be very difficult to find a safe activity, but little acts like checking in on friends, calling family members and relatives could be a decisive factor in one’s life.
With limited access to students and existing issues within the student population, it becomes tricky to diagnose and reach out. Though, Schierbaum and Kostelz both encourage students to reach out to their social workers and trusted adults for help.