Updated: Aug 9, 2020
The Coronavirus struck in a flash. We all knew it was coming, but did it ever seem real? Italy and China are on the other side of the world, so sure it was easy to push away the genuine threat of it coming here. But in the blink of an eye, schools were closed, mandatory social distancing enforced, and the world order flipped on its head. In all the chaos, it was easy to neglect the effect of all this stress on one's mental health, especially the effect that this has had on those with mental health disorders.
Humans are social creatures. We are intelligent organisms, able to communicate and interact on complex levels. Therefore, our society is built around this communication, this interaction. We go to school, we go to work, we hangout with friends, we go to parties; we interact and we are built to do so. So when we are unable to fill our social needs, like the situation we are in right now with COVID-19, it is not good for anyone. For those who are usually in a strong state of mental health, the stress of all the implications of COVID-19, on top of this lack of interaction due to quarantine, can take a huge toll on their mental health. For those with mental health disorders, however, this seems like a perfect storm.
Many students suffering from mental health affliction rely on our ‘normal’ order for their own mental wellbeing. Being able to spend time away from home is crucial for many young people whose homes are major stressors. The small act of going to school and leaving behind whatever may trigger an episode or be the source of much of one’s pain is a vital refuge for many. Without school or a change in environment, many young people are left feeling trapped and isolated from the world that they have used to build themselves up.
In addition, many students rely on their peers for support. Friends are some of the closest, most emotionally supportive people in a student's life. Students rely on their friends to be there, to lend a hand when they’re down. But COVID-19 complicated this seemingly essential aspect of all of our lives. How can you really be there for someone else a couple miles away? Can you put your arm around a crying friend 6ft. apart? You can’t. Even if you’re not directly relying on someone for support, the simple act of spending time with others or sharing in an activity is so beneficial to one’s mental health. We are social creatures after all, taking away our social interaction is like taking away a part of our being. This is why a large portion of mental health treatment involves group therapy or involvement in groups or activity. Being with others helps us. Stripping away the ability to spend time with others for long periods of time can be extremely detrimental, especially for those afflicted with preexisting conditions.
Lastly, COVID-19 has made it difficult for students to access resources many rely on. The counseling department is a major source of support for students. Students can go to their counselor to discuss issues in their lives and receive guidance and acceptance, something that many lack elsewhere in their lives. However, these meetings almost exclusively take place on campus, just like meetings with therapists and psychiatrists usually take place in person. It's not easy for professionals to provide the support and aid that students need virtually. This is especially pronounced when these virtual meetings may take place in the home, a place that can be a stressor for students, making it even harder for professionals to support students.
All of these repercussions of COVID-19 can overwhelm students. Support systems may fall apart, leaving students feeling alone, especially when they can’t even see their friends or counselors they have become accustomed to relying on.
One story about a high school student I know well deeply highlights each of the factors I have mentioned above. He has bipolar and depressive episodes linked to his home life, so before quarantine he would spend all of his time away from home. He was able to stay late after school playing sports, do homework in the library, and stay with friends until night. He was able to build up a system where he could thrive in his current situation using his interactions. He lived his life in the company of others. So COVID-19 essentially threw him in jail and tossed the key. Suddenly, everything that made life bearable for him was gone. He was forced to spend months alone with his family, triggering many depressive episodes and effectively destroying his mental health. He had never felt more alone.
This lasted for a while. It was difficult for him to find any semblance of motivation to complete his school work or to stay in shape for the sports that he loved. COVID-19 seemed to place him in a hole and took away the ladder. But slowly, he was able to climb out. His friends began to call more once they adjusted to the new ‘normal.’ Though he wasn’t able to see them, he could still watch movies and play video games with them. Talking to his therapist didn’t feel as effective while he was in a hostile environment, but the zoom calls that his therapist set up helped him work through ways to handle living at home. He spent less time lying in bed, and began to start running and going on hikes. He began to actually complete his school work and prepare for college.
I tell you this story for a reason: although COVID-19 brought disruption and change, this student eventually was able to adapt to the change and reach a new ‘normal.’ First, he had the financial means to see a therapist. Not everyone has that kind of financial ability, which is one reason we at DMV Students for Mental Health Reform are advocating for more funding for school counseling departments. Second, he had friends! or the safety of ourselves and others, hanging out with friends like we used to simply isn’t an option. However, like this student, we can find new ways to interact. We can’t let COVID-19 take away our humanity, our need to communicate and socialize. We are still able to call and text, we can still watch a movie together or play video games, we can interact. There is still a lot that we miss from our old ‘normal,’ like sports and group activities. These were large aspects of our lives. However, we haven’t lost everything, and we certainly haven’t lost each other.
In addition, the resources that students rely on are becoming more and more available online. It was difficult in the beginning, especially for school counselors trying to sort through all of their responsibilities aside from supporting students. However, as time went on, these resources and professionals have been able to better support students at a distance. Counselors have begun to reach out more to students to check in, therapists and psychiatrists have been able to set up zoom calls and carry out sessions. School counselors and psychologists are exploring new ways to interact with students as a result of the limitations imposed by COVID-19. Winston Churchill High School Psychologist Kelly Gruitt has been working with national organizations to create videos educating both students and parents, creating and sending postcards that discuss strategies to manage mental health along with a committee, and worked together with the counseling department to overhaul the way in which counselors support students, in addition to all of her other responsibilities. It’s not what it used to be, that can’t be expected, but it’s a clear improvement that has already helped students.
This is a new, scary, and frankly unpredictable time. Nobody can say what will happen next or how the future looks. We can’t expect everything to return to how it was. The changes brought by COVID-19 will have many negative effects on us and our mental health. But that doesn’t mean it will stop us, that it will dig our grave. So much progress has already been made to adapt, whether from the students themselves or from professionals looking for new ways to help students. We are all still here, just separate. As so many have said, we just have to find new ways to be together, apart.
As a rising senior in Montgomery County, I can relate to a lot of what my fellow students are facing. I have felt the crushing stress and anxiety, the borderline paranoia about the safety of my friends and family, the debilitating uncertainty of the future. I don’t claim to have any answers to what we are all facing. I’m just a student passionate about mental health looking to make a difference in my community. What I do know, however, is that we aren’t facing this alone, as much as it may seem that way. We have our families, our friends, our community members, our counselors, our teachers; the list goes on. Now more than ever, it is crucial that we band together and support each other, even if at a distance.