The brain is at one of its most pivotal stages of development during the teenage years, rendering it especially susceptible to the impact of social and emotional changes that teenagers experience. When the COVID-19 pandemic transformed everyday life overnight, teenagers were left vulnerable to mental health challenges as they fought to adapt to their new reality without the support of in-person interaction.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, depression and anxiety rates in adolescents have already seen a steady increase since 2003. Societal pressure surrounding success and unrealistic body ideals have certainly not been of help. Confined to their homes, deprived of the social contact that is so beneficial to mental stability, many teenagers have become victims of surges in such mental health issues.
Ever since Berkeley High School (BHS) went virtual, students have lost the in-person peer interaction that characterized daily life in high school. The lack of a physical classroom has taken a toll on both the energy and focus of students. Anna Khan-Akselrod, a sophomore in Berkeley International High School (BIHS), explained that she learns best when she is discussing ideas with others. She said, “I am very talkative and have a lot of energy, so containing that is very tiring for me.” Dahrius Bissell, a junior in Academic Choice (AC), expressed the importance of interaction for his own motivation. “Socializing with other students was what got me through the day,” he explained.
Not only has the drop in social interaction caused significant fatigue, but experts caution that it even goes against the very nature of adolescent brains. Doctor Alice Tsoi, a licensed therapist with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, said that “people have social needs of different levels, but everyone needs connection.”
Quarantine has also contributed to a rise in anxiety for high schoolers. Bissell explained the difficulty of adapting to this new way of life. He said, “in the past, [my routine] has always been the same. Now that it’s a different situation, I don’t know what to expect, which makes me more nervous.” Dr. Tsoi also acknowledged a trend of anxiety among her teenage clients. “Many students have come to me with concern or confusion, and have become more anxious,” she said.
Part of that anxiety stems from uncertainty about the future. COVID-19 has thrown obstacles in the way of students achieving their goals and dreams, including attending colleges and universities. One issue is that college counseling has been minimized significantly, creating extra stress for seniors. “Usually, we have lots of meetings with college counselors and essay readers,” said Daisy Abiad, a senior in AC. Abiad has had to reschedule taking the SAT multiple times and figure out how to write essays for college by herself. She said, “Since we’re quarantining, we can’t have Cal students come help us. It’s really tough to have to do everything on your own.”
Leia Figueroa, a senior in AC, said, “[I’m] really anxious [about the future]. We don’t have a set world to make our decisions about our future because we don’t know what it will look like in even a week, much less in a year or two.” It can be difficult to find meaning when key milestones, like leaving home or graduation, are canceled. Dr. Tsoi added, “everyone is questioning what their futures are going to look like. Some have felt that all of the work they have been doing for the last four years of high school is leading only to uncertainty.”
Without support from friends, students’ mental health relating to body image has taken a hit. “Being isolated means that you’re spending a lot more time only getting input from your brain and how you look when you get dressed,” said Figueroa. In the past, Figueroa relied on social interaction and affirmation from friends to combat doubt about their body. At BHS, they surrounded themselves with uplifting people and began to feel comfortable with their appearance. During the first months of the shelter-in-place, Figueroa underwent a sudden reversal of their past efforts. “I tried to get dressed in outfits that made me feel good about myself, but when I would try on this pair of pants that I used to love and they wouldn’t fit, my first reaction was to be frustrated with myself. I had to reach out to my friends for help instead of it just being a given that I would see them and they would make me feel better,” they explained.
Despite the mental health struggles that come with quarantine, students have devised new ways of finding a sense of connection. “I made custom patches for friends and got letters back. Knowing that I did something for someone and it made them happy gave me the same energy that hanging out with people gave me,” said Figueroa. Abiad shared her strategy of using creativity as an outlet. “I will draw or paint something when I am stressed out. Art is calming because you are free to do whatever you want,” she said.
While the long-term impact of isolation on high schoolers’ mental health has yet to be revealed, there are ways to supplement the loss of things we took for granted. As a last piece of advice, Dr. Tsoi encouraged that “students should work on being flexible… Lay back a little bit. Know that you don’t need to be perfect.”
Resources for BHS Students:
BHS Health Center: 510-644-6965
California Youth Crisis Line: 800-843-5200