As students make college plans for this fall, some U.S. universities are seeing surging interest from in-state students looking to stay closer to home amid the coronavirus pandemic.
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Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm Melissa Harris-Perry in for Tanzina Vega and this is The Takeaway. Now, the fear, loss, stress, and isolation of the pandemic has been extraordinarily challenging for our collective mental health. This is particularly true for teens and adolescence.
Student 1: Although you would expect it to be less stressful because you have more time to do homework, somehow I feel like teachers have been compensating by giving us some more work.
Student 2: For me, homeschooling has been really difficult. I've had a really hard time focusing. I've been handing in assignments late. I've been texting my friends during class. It's really quite awful.
Student 3: Now, there have been complaints about too much screen time in my school, so they're cutting class time down and they're dishing out more homework, which isn't great.
Melissa: These are the voices of teens talking with the women's interest website SheKnows.com back in April of 2020 when schools had only been closed for about a month. Nearly 18 months later, the isolation and uncertainty of the pandemic, combined with the pressures to achieve and perform well during the past year, has heightened anxiety, depression, and thoughts of self-harm among teens.
A recent op-ed in The New York Times reviews startling results from multiple studies showing that the mental wellness of adolescents has deteriorated significantly. As students return to in-person classes in the fall, reporting from The Hechinger Report shows that many schools are ill-equipped to handle the decline in mental health. Joining me now is Kate Rix, Oakland-based freelance writer with The Hechinger Report. Kate, welcome to The Takeaway.
Kate Rix: Thank you. Nice to talk to you, Melissa.
Melissa: Also joining me is Emily Esfahani Smith, who's a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology and the author of The Power of Meaning. Emily, welcome to The Takeaway.
Emily Esfahani Smith: Thanks for having me, Melissa.
Melissa: Emily, can you walk us through a bit what the pandemic has meant for the mental health of teens?
Emily: The sad facts are that there was already a mental health crisis among teenagers and adolescents even before the pandemic. Over the last decade, we've seen rates of anxiety, depression, self-harm, suicidal thinking rising fairly dramatically among this group of teenagers. What happened during the pandemic is that all of those trends accelerated. The question is why?
Many teens are suffering. As we heard their voices earlier, they feel very anxious in particular about academic goals and the pressure to achieve, which strangely has accelerated over the past 16 months. You'd have thought that the pressure would have been alleviated, but that's not what's happened and that's been the chief cause of their mental health concerns.
Melissa: It seems to be the part of what's happening in our public discourse right now, is this idea that, "Don't worry. Everything will be fine when we go back to normal." Kate, in your recent reporting, you found that schools aren't necessarily ready to manage this mental health crisis, this increased stress that Emily was just talking about.
Kate: That's right, Melissa. What Emily was just saying about teens feeling this pressure to continue to achieve under these very difficult circumstances only highlights the need for onsite mental health counseling services in public schools. A lot of times, teenagers in some school districts like the one where I live in Oakland, California, there are actually school-based health centers where social workers are present and teens can just walk in and make an appointment to talk to someone and it's confidential.
If, for example, their parents are a cause of stress in their life, perhaps putting pressure on them that they can't quite meet that this counseling is there for them and they don't have to ask their parents for help finding counseling. To me, what I found was that pandemic has, as Emily said, only highlighted how ill-equipped our schools are to meet the need. I heard from a psychologist in Chicago Public Schools, who said that he's responsible for 4,600 students in his school. He's the only psychologist who works in that school. He said, "I feel like I'm doing triage most days."
Melissa: Kate, talk to me a little bit more about that sense of students feeling like they don't have the support systems that they need.
Kate: The teens that I spoke with, many of them were actually teens who you would think would be aware of whatever supports their schools had. The teens that I spoke with included a student vice president in Las Vegas who unfortunately lost friends during the pandemic to, actually, drug overdoses. This teenager was informed that their friend had passed away. There was really nothing that the school could do to support.
There wasn't the staff available to provide grief counseling for students who's had lost friends. This teenager in particular, Caden McKnight, who I quote, wasn't even aware that there are some apps. For example, the district had put in place some apps to help students monitor their mental health that would trigger staff at the district level if that teen reported feeling that they needed help. Caden wasn't aware that these services existed.
I think that there was a sense that the services are very overburdened and stretched, but also the communication to teens themselves about what's available to them during the pandemic were not adequate. While the people that I spoke with were definitely aware of the need and, in some cases, scrambling to put things together, the communications weren't really in place. I heard from multiple students reports of that, but they didn't know who they would even reach out to if they wanted to talk to someone.
Melissa: Yet, Emily, they were getting some kind of communication and the communication they seem to be getting was, "No matter how bad it is, you still got to achieve. You still got to accomplish. You've got to get into these colleges. You've got to get these top grades." How is it that we were failing as communities, as schools to communicate the resources available, but we're still communicating so much pressure?
Emily: It's a great question and it's a tragic reality. I think at the bottom of it is the good intentions of teachers and parents. A lot of people were thinking about students over the past 16, 17 months. We're worried about a year of lost learning, lost milestones. I can see with that fear in the background wanting to encourage students, pressure students to push themselves to continue getting good grades, being involved in extracurricular activities, perhaps in an online format, things like that.
What's really striking is that students reported in a national survey conducted by the organization Challenge Success that their parents, their expectations during the pandemic, for many of them, their expectations remain the same as before the pandemic. For many of those parents, their expectations actually increased. Even though the parents had a sense that their children were struggling, there was still this demand to perform that was placed on them and that was very difficult for students.
Other research showed that one of the chief predictors of student depression and anxiety during the pandemic was parents' unrealistic expectations placed on their children and parental criticism as well. I think part of why we saw that accelerating was simply because parents and kids were spending more time in the home together. Parents were more likely to be there on top of their children, making sure that they weren't looking over their shoulders, on their laptops, making sure that they weren't on social media instead of paying attention in class, things like that. There was this toxic brew of parental criticism, unrealistic expectations, and students lacking autonomy that they would have had under ordinary circumstances being at school away from the household.
Melissa: Yes, I certainly said to girlfriends more than a few times that nature did not intend for us to be 24 hours a day in the house with our teens. There's just no way that that is good for either the parents or the kids, that need for autonomy and development. Emily, just quick second on this. Isn't that also in part that we tend to discount teens' feelings? We're like, "Well, yes, they're emotional," but that's just how teens feel as opposed to really acknowledging how troubling this time was.
Emily: I think that's right. I think that there is this idea that teenage years or hormonal years are difficult years and the parents' job is to keep their anchors and keel steady and move them through this period, ensuring that they're achieving the important milestones and goals like academic goals. Of course, I think what we need to remember is that the pandemic was a national and collective stressor, a trauma.
As Kate shows in her reporting, many of these students lost their friends to suicide, to drug overdoses. To dismiss that the grief and all of the loss that's arisen over the past 17 years as just the normal emotional upheaval of the teenage period, I think, is to do teens a real disservice. In speaking to them, I've seen a real craving and yearning to have some sort of space and forum, whether it's at home or at school to process their grief and these losses.
Melissa: Kate Rix is an Oakland-based freelance writer with The Hechinger Report and Emily Esfahani Smith is a doctoral student in clinical psychology and the author of The Power of Meaning. I also just want to note that if you have a teen who is suffering or if you know a young person struggling right now, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number. It's 1800-273-8255 or the Crisis Text Line. Text HELLO, H-E-L-L-O, to 741741, 741741.
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