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Counselors: covid causing new mental health issues for youth, making old ones worse

Erin Kim/YJI

The hardships of the pandemic are creating new mental health problems for young people and exacerbating existing ones, according to counselors and therapists who work with youth.

In interviews with Youth Journalism International, mental health professionals from five different countries discussed the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on teens and young adults.

For some, the uncontrollable circumstances of their lives are what set young people up for a difficult time during quarantine, according to the professionals interviewed.

Canadian psychotherapist Helen Butlin said socializing with peers – which is difficult in the pandemic – is extremely important to the development of children and adolescents. 

Helen Butlin

“By the time you’re 12, your pack is your friends,” said Butlin, who practices in Ontario. “Developmentally speaking, not being able to be with your friends can have a huge impact for mental and emotional well-being.” 

Michelle Collins, a trauma counselor in private practice in Houston, Texas, said it’s important to keep in mind pre-existing mental health conditions, which tend to intensify in a climate as uncertain as that of the pandemic.

Michelle Collins

Most youth also felt a sense of loss because of the pandemic. Having their daily routine and other regular activities snatched away from them robs them of their sense of stability, more than one of the professionals said.

“People rely on rites,” said Paulina Véjar, who has worked as a school psychologist for the past 24 years in Quito, Ecuador. “There is one rite, that in the case of the sixth graders, is not going to be fulfilled, which is the rite of the graduation ceremony.”

The same sentiment was echoed among the high school and college classes of 2020. For many people, it is difficult to truly transition from one chapter of life to the next without a ceremony to officially establish the fact.

Roseanne Erika Loquellano

Roseanne Erika Loquellano, 24, a medical intern in Manila, Philippines who has worked with young people, said that the uncertainty brought on by the pandemic may cause students to be worried about their education or career path.

The pandemic “is giving us a hard time because of the unforeseeable future,” said Loquellano. “When will this end? Will I still be able to graduate on time? Will I still be a doctor?” 

Whether or not an individual was anticipating a rite, however, there has been a universal loss of a daily routine, and the certainty that it established in each person’s life. 

Kate Turner, a counselor in private practice in Spring, Texas, has observed this in her clients.

Kate Turner

While some teenagers embraced the opportunity for freedom and relaxation with open arms, Turner said, others are forced to battle their demons, confronting emotions that had been bottled up in the flurry of their pre-pandemic lives.

A young person’s family situation and home life plays a large role.

This can mean feelings of isolation for an only child or the complete opposite for a young person who has a large family.

“For people who have a full household with lots of brothers and sisters, they experience perhaps less loneliness and feel more overwhelmed, just because of the number of people in the house. So it’s probably one extreme or the other, like too much interaction or not enough,” said Allison Bailey, a music teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia.

“I have noticed also that students seem a little bit starved for interaction outside of the household, and that’s one reason that I think that to some degree, they’re enjoying the virtual school – just to be able to reach out to their school friends in a time when they can’t speak with anybody except their family,” Bailey said.

People choose to cope with the pandemic and lockdown in different ways, and many turn to social media.

While social media has its benefits, excessive use can be detrimental to one’s mental state. Sara Sirati, a counselor who practices in Cardiff, Wales, offered some advice.

Rather than being powerless to social media, Sirati said youth should use it to their benefit. They can use it to stay connected with things they enjoy and people who matter, she said, and eliminate the things that cause stress and anxiety.

In addition to emotional well-being, quarantine also affected physical health.

Gilbert-Reed observed two extremes. On one end, kids are going outside more and on the other end, they are not moving at all.

Peri Gilbert-Reed

With no physical movement comes weight gain and a loss of endorphin release in the body, which may lead to depression. 

“It is important to have fun,” Gilbert-Reed said.

There is also a difference between younger children’s reactions and that of older youth.

Sirati echoed many of the experts when she talked about her experience as a therapist during the pandemic, reflecting their shared sentiments.

“It would be really incongruent not to check in about how the situation is impacting the young people,” Sirati said. “For me, as a therapist, I put that into the sessions as a priority long – to check in and to ensure that we’re fully aware of what kind of week or day it’s been and how these young people are feeling about the situation as we go through it.”

This story was reported by Aileen Cevallos in Quito, Ecuador; Nisha Chandar-Nair in Lincoln, England; Chuying Huo in Ontario, Canada;  Katrina Machetta in Spring, Texas and Nivetha Nandakumar in Cardiff, Wales.  It was written by Salma Amrou in Suffolk, Virginia and Bilge Nur Güven in Istanbul. Erin Kim made the cover illustration.

Covid Mood is a global project by Youth Journalism International examining how the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 impacted mental health among the world’s young people. Its 17 news stories and accompanying photos and illustrations are by 21 students from a dozen nations on six continents. Together, they interviewed 56 teenagers and young adults in 18 countries and mental health professionals from five different nations. All Covid Mood stories are accessible here.

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