Editor’s note: The following is the first in a three-part series by the Herald-Review on the state of mental health among our local teen population. The intent is to provide some insight on how youth have adjusted to life post-pandemic, in a quest to get back to ‘normal.’
Although there is now a gap between times of quarantine and today where we have increased freedom once again, it is no lie that the social-distancing era of COVID has affected our ways of interaction.
By far, it is the youth that have struggled most with interaction coming out of COVID. There were two solid years when life consisted of practices in isolation. Kids attended school and extracurricular activities through a screen. They were unable to visit with friends and peers face to face. While now things may be going back to normal for those that no longer have to attend school, for those that do, many youth feel shifts within themselves that are somewhat uncomfortable with once again a big change of adjusting to back in-person.
“Students weren’t connected as face to face with others. That physical disconnection impacted a lot of social skills and sensory tolerance, like how loud it is in the school,” said Tanis Henderson, a licensed school counselor at Grand Rapids High School. “We took for granted some of these skills in the past.”
After being away from a real classroom and school practices for so long, many kids have felt a bit of a culture shock getting back into the swing of attending school. After two years of keeping to themselves, it’s been hard for kids to interact and engage with one another as they did pre-COVID.
“That lack of connection does affect students’ ability to engage with school in the ways that we are asking for them to engage,” said Henderson.
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If you really think about it, it makes sense. COVID has affected the norm of everyone’s personal interactions, but especially in kids and teens. During COVID, kids and teens were forced to isolate themselves, something that goes against their nature. While quarantining, and having to attend school and see friends through a screen, the desire to make and further connections and progress is stunted. It is simply not the same. A virtual world does not stimulate like the real world does.
School counselors have noticed a decrease in enthusiasm and an increase in social anxiety when it comes to social interaction, like attending school, in the youth. It has become the normal to have main interactions with friends through social media and electronics rather than sports and classes, as this was what youth did to salvage the little social interactions they could in the years of social distancing and quarantine. Yet in the end, it is no secret that these times of COVID have not just affected the ways of interaction, but it has also affected teen mental health as a whole.
Henderson says, “12-30% of school age children suffer from mental illness of sufficient intensity to adversely affect their education.”
Counselors, especially school counselors, are a major pillar in teen mental health. School counselors are tier one mental health care, meaning they are oftentimes one of the more accessible mental health care providers. Kids and teens do not need any sort of permission or diagnosis to see a school counselor. Other tier one mental health care providers are family, friends, pastors, co-workers, and social workers.
“As a community we have a strong collaboration,” said Henderson, regarding mental health services in our area. Henderson, being a school counselor, is a part of the school-based mental health system, which focuses on early intervention, and getting ahead of teen mental health issues before they can really develop into anything more severe.
“From the school side, all of the schools have school counselors or school social workers who are really there to be that first line for mental health support for students,” said Henderson. “We are that early intervention.”
On top of the stress and anxiety of re-emerging into the community in a face-to-face matter, there are also other aspects that really add on to teen mental health in our schools and in our community. Here in the Grand Rapids community, there is a higher than normal rate of adverse childhood experiences. There are things that are very traumatic to children and teens, such as parent incarceration, living with a parent with a mental illness, experiencing physical or sexual abuse. These experiences that are present within our youth have sometimes detrimental effects on the health of kids and teens as a whole
“Here in Itasca county, we have a high prevalence of people who have experienced adverse childhood experiences that happen. We know that adverse childhood experiences increase your risk of physical and mental health diseases over your lifetime,” said Henderson. “Those types of big things that happen to students really can impact them and impact their mental health and wellness as well as their physical health and wellness.”
These experiences can isolate students internally, even if physically they are attending school and going out in public. This is why early intervention is so important and why it needs to be present in schools, so that they can be helped as early as possible.
“The earlier that students can get resources and students can get skills and support, that the less intense their symptoms could be as they get older,” Henderson explained. “We need to strengthen our school-based mental health systems, so that there are those things that we can do from a school perspective too. All of our students need a connection and a relationship with someone at school. I know it seems simple, but in our building we have 1,200 students, and we don’t have 1,200 staff. So how do we create that space within our systems to make sure all of our students feel like they belong and are heard, and are seen, and know where to go when they need those supports.”
“I do think we have a lot of options. With that being said Minnesota is the fourth worst in the nation for student to counselor ratios. Not at every building do students have access to a school counselor, and that’s hard,” she added.
Students have had a hard time adjusting back to the reality of the world that was pre-COVID, just as everyone else has these past couple years. In the years of isolation, teens had taken on the stress of the adjustment to living through and attending life through a screen. They turned to technology to interact with their friends. Now, with things returning to what most of us knew as “normal,” there is another adjustment that many are struggling with, and that is the mental health struggles of face-to-face human interaction and reality after years of experiencing the opposite.
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