Back to School: A Study in Disruption
For so many young people this year, back to school does not mean back to normal. In many parts of the country, going back to school this Fall means taking a seat at the kitchen table and opening a school-issued laptop. It means more lessons and lectures over the internet. It means the absence of structure that school provides. It means missing out on social interactions.
It is also true that going back to school in person brings with it just as many potential hazards, risks and scary thoughts. All that to say, it isn’t easy being a kid in 2020, and the COVID-19 pandemic is just one chapter in the awful story that’s unfolding around us. In addition to concerns over transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19, students have witnessed and been affected by the social, cultural and economic upheaval in America.
Protests throughout the country following the deaths of African-Americans by law enforcement have raised questions over racial injustice. It has also been shocking to see that COVID-19 has disproportionately infected and killed black and brown Americans. More than 30 million people are jobless, and college students preparing to enter the job market face a bleak economic landscape and a path that might lead right back to their parents’ kitchen table.
Young people have a lot to cope with in 2020. Adults do, too. As a parent, it’s difficult to witness the emotional anguish my own children experience with each new crisis that erupts.
So what can we do? A lot.
A survey released over the Summer – commissioned by the National 4-H Council and conducted by the Harris Poll – found seven in 10 teens are dealing with depression, anxiety or increased stress, or a combination of the three. We all need to provide empathy for each other now more than ever. That begins with acknowledging the challenges young people face. It means listening.
Despite what we may think, students want a better online learning experience. At a recent Education Writers Association conference, a panel of students discussed challenges they face during the pandemic and said they want virtual learning to be better than it was when schools went remote in March. They also want teachers to be engaged. In other words, adults have a unique role and responsibility to offer guidance and serve as a calming influence to kids who continue to experience anxiety over the pandemic and the many ways it continues to disrupt their lives.
Because young people have unique needs and concerns, we are updating our resources and plan to launch our teen Mental Health First Aid (tMHFA) curriculum this Fall. The peer-to-peer program helps young people assist each other in times of crisis and to encourage their friends that are having problems to speak with a caring adult. That could be you, or me, if we are open to accepting the request. We will make every element of the program available online.
We know the program works. Last year, Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation and the National Council for Behavioral Health announced a plan to expand tMHFA to high schools around the country. The pandemic has forced us to revise delivery of the curriculum, and moving the program online will ensure teens continue to have access to resources when they need them most.
It’s vital that we demonstrate our compassion for young people by providing them with the resources necessary to cope with the relentless disruption they are experiencing in 2020. We can also demonstrate our compassion through our willingness to listen and acknowledge what they’re going through, and to help when it is needed.
Many young people can’t go back to their classrooms yet, but adults can do a lot to help them get back to normal.
NATIONAL CRISIS RESOURCES
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) for free 24/7 support. Call 1-888-6289454 for support in Spanish.
- Crisis Text Line: Text “MHFA” to 741741 for free 24/7 crisis counseling.
- Lifeline Crisis Chat: Visit www.crisischat.org to talk online with crisis centers around the United States.
- The Trevor Project: Call 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 678678 for mental health support specialized for the LGBTQI community.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s (SAMHSA) Disaster Distress Helpline: Call 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746 to connect with a trained crisis counselor.
ADDITIONAL RESOURCES FOR TEENS
These online resources are free and may help you and your friends cope with stress and manage your mental health during these uncertain times.
- Jed Foundation: Guidance on how to recognize a friend’s emotional distress online and how to get that friend help.
- TeensHealth: A safe place for teens to access honest and accurate information on mental health issues including specific information about the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) and coping with stress.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness: Information for teens and young adults about managing mental health and supporting friends.