By Jessica Easthope
COVID-19 has generally spared the physical health of young people. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says kids account for less than 10 percent of all cases in the United States. But the pandemic has preyed on their mental health.
“Uncertainty, death that has occurred, social isolation, parental angst and all of this has impacted children and adolescent mental health,” said Christina Sama-Bommarito, the school psychologist at The Mary Louis Academy (TMLA) in Jamaica Estates, Queens.
Over the last year, the number of students Christina counsels has gone up by 50 percent. She says teachers have taken on a new critical role in identifying students who need help and guiding them on how to control their anxiety.
“We understand now more than ever that what students may need in the moment may not necessarily be part of the lesson plan,” Christina said.
Students say the uncertainty of the pandemic has been the biggest hurdle.
“It was hard those months when we were like majorly isolated and we weren’t going anywhere,” said TMLA sophomore Breann Elder, “and it was hard to stay in contact with my friends.”
Lately, TMLA junior Gabriela Maldonado has been putting mental health first and what she has learned to good use.
“Just taking deep breaths and time out of my day or sometimes, I’ll just get up and take a break from whatever I may be doing,” said Gabriela, “and I’ll go in splash some water on my face it kind of reawakens me and brings me back to the task at hand.”
But what happens when depression and anxiety are so intense, tips and tricks don’t cut it?
According to the American Journal of Pediatrics, suicidal ideations in people ages 11 to 21 went up during months when COVID-related stress was at a high.
“Teenage years, as we know, are stressful enough themselves,” said Chris Dougherty, the chair of guidance department and school social worker at Archbishop Molloy High School in Briarwood, “to add this has been so detrimental to so many kids.”
Chris sees nearly 40 students a week, but it’s been tough to talk to them about important mental health issues like suicide.
“Tracking them down has become harder, or them forgetting about the appointment,” Chris said of the hybrid school model, “so I had to remind them to send notifications and reminders and things like that. It’s been a challenge.”
Simple things like laughing can relieve stress and anxiety, but students say it’s most important to ask for help.
“Over the course of the pandemic, God has really become my rock,” said Breann. “When I just feel, like scared or anxious, or any sort of paranoia, just knowing that I have God and I can have faith and hope in Him, it really keeps me grounded. It really helped my relationship with Him.”
Stress is high and though physical distance is necessary, experts say now is the time for kids to stay socially connected.