With the new school year now underway, students throughout Illinois have finally made their long-awaited return back into the classroom.
Although many are breathing a sigh of relief after having their lives turned upside down by the pandemic over the past 18 months, it’s not exactly what was expected. With the delta variant driving a fourth COVID outbreak in the United States, the pace of the march back to “normal” remains slow and cautious.
Still, though, there is reason to feel hopeful. After replacing birthday parties with Zoom calls, summer getaways with staycations and graduation celebrations with drive-through ceremonies—could it be time for young people to start thinking more seriously about life after the pandemic?
“It is important for young people to remember that they are not alone, many others also experienced these losses and they will be able to share this loss experience with their peers,” says Mary Kate Beckmen, licensed clinical social worker at Meridian. “Now that we are hopefully moving away from the pandemic and back to a ‘new normal,’ these missed milestones are now a part of their story of resiliency.”
Even as we look forward to happier days ahead, young people will need to make an effort to prioritize their mental health. The hardships of the pandemic have contributed to increased mental health struggles among young people, and for many, overcoming the trauma will be another significant challenge in their lives.
Miriam Robinovitz, M.D., a board-certified psychiatrist at Meridian, says that—when it comes to moving forward—it’s all about self compassion. “It has been a very hard year-and-a-half, and for many young people it is the hardest set of circumstances that they have ever faced,” she explains. “I encourage them to be kind to themselves, forgiving of themselves when they feel they are not ‘living up’ to their own expectations.”
Dr. Robinovitz and Mary Kate Beckmen, who both joined the Meridian team over the summer and specialize in supporting children and adolescents, took some time recently to discuss trauma, self-care and life after the pandemic for young people. Read on for their lightly edited insights below.
What are some common difficulties that you are observing from young people now that they’re back in school for full-time, in-person learning?
MB: Students are feeling a variety of emotions, many of them conflicting. They’re excited to see their friends and have more social interactions after being isolated for the past 18 months, but they are also reporting feeling a lot of anxiety about their ability to perform and sustain in-person learning.
Students are having to wake up earlier in order to complete morning routines and allow for transportation time to school, which most students are struggling with after having the luxury of sleeping until the last minute before joining virtual classes. They’re experiencing difficulty with stamina, as they are now expected to engage and participate in academics all day, and many then engage in after school activities. …
Students are also experiencing body confidence issues and anxieties associated with physical appearance, after they have been able to be behind a computer screen for classes.
What should parents be doing right now to make sure their children feel supported? How about educators?
MR: I think that giving kids the space to talk and express their feelings is always important, but especially now. Children and adolescents may not always want to talk about things, but we should continue to give them a supportive space to do so. This means carving out some specific time to do activities together, such as having meals together, going for walks, getting ice cream; essentially creating a space where these conversations can happen.
Our educators have done an exceptional job throughout this pandemic. Continuing to be there for their students and creating a safe space are the most important things that they do and can continue to do right now.
In addition to struggles like depression and anxiety, is it possible that the pandemic is the cause of PTSD in children and adolescents? How exactly do you define “trauma” in your work?
MR: Clinically, trauma is defined as any exposure to a serious injury, sexual violence or a life-threatening situation. What some people may not realize about PTSD, is that you do not personally have to experience trauma to develop PTSD; rather, PTSD can arise from learning about trauma experienced by others who are very close to you.
Even though children may not have personally experienced trauma from COVID, many did have loved ones who became seriously ill. And others had caregivers who were frontline workers; in the early stages of the pandemic it was sometimes very dangerous to be a frontline worker. So many children experienced vicarious trauma. And some have gone on to develop PTSD, which is a set of symptoms that are experienced at least a month after a trauma occurs.
Even before the pandemic, a Pew Research Center analysis of 2017 data found depression was on the rise among teenagers. What do you believe are some contributing factors to high rates of depression among young people these days?
MB: While technology has many great benefits, I do think that it negatively impacts our youth today. Social media has made life a competition to have bigger things, better experiences, happier feelings and better physical appearance. It is important for youth to remember that social media is not real life, and typically people do not post their struggles on social media. From my experience working with children and adolescents, depression and anxiety result from feeling that their lives are not as good as others’ lives, both physically and emotionally.
How can young people make meaningful steps in their day-to-day lives in order to thrive moving forward?
MB: Enjoy the little things! The pandemic put things into perspective when we were not able to travel or do more extravagant hobbies, so we had to focus on finding joy from small things. Take time to rest and recover from social interactions as needed. Stick to a routine! Listen to your body, eat healthy, exercise and spend time with loved ones. Most importantly, advocate for your needs to be met.
What advice would you give to young people and families who might still be struggling with mental health challenges, despite their best efforts to live healthily?
MR: Reaching out for help for you and your loved ones is a sign of strength and resiliency. Mental health has sometimes been stigmatized in the past, but I think that the pandemic has shone a light on the importance of taking care of our mental health. Reaching out to a mental health care specialist can be a great step toward taking care of this important aspect of your health.
Photo by Kevin Laminto via Unsplash.com
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