With a year-long quarantine, virtual school, and Zoom sessions replacing the majority of our opportunities for human interaction, this past year has been one characterized largely by isolation. However, these public health measures did not come without their consequences. In our efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, we indirectly gave rise to a silent mental health epidemic that is felt by millions of people and is disproportionately impacting youth.
This is an interesting statistic because although young people are less likely to suffer directly from the virus, 75% of people aged 18-24 report “adverse mental or behavioral symptoms as a result of the pandemic,” according to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report.
However, this phenomenon is nothing new. Mental health trends for young people have been going south for years, but COVID-19 has certainly exacerbated that, according to Laura D. Kubzansky, co-director of the Lee Kum Sheung Center for Health and Happiness at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Increasing numbers of adolescents are reporting experiencing feelings of stress, anxiety, fear, and loneliness. The National Institute of Health credits this statistic to disruptions in major contributors to psychological development, such as “routines, social interactions, and friendships.”
A few students I interviewed also agreed that the drastic changes in the past year have significantly impacted their day-to-day lives. Some stated that their grades declined, while others felt their activities became more boring and dull.
However, some students took initiative and found ways to keep their spirits up. For example, Neha Koganti, a junior at Woodward Academy, said she did “yoga and meditation every day [because] it can really make a big impact on your physical, mental, and emotional well-being.”
As overwhelming and bleak as this past year has been, it certainly calls attention to a larger issue — the ways in which we address mental health as a society. Some form of mental illness impacts one in five people and drains billions of dollars from the global economy each year. Yet, this issue goes widely unacknowledged in the broader scheme of things. The mind is the foundation of our society — it controls our emotions, our thoughts, and our day-to-day lives, and it makes us human. Yet, discussions about maintaining its health have become greatly stigmatized and resources are severely undervalued. The World Health Organization has outlined the mental health sector as being chronically underfunded and unable to meet the increasing demand for services as a result of the pandemic, with only 43% of people receiving help.
But, there are steps individuals can take to make a change, for example, becoming a mental health advocate. Advocates are individuals who display vulnerability by “telling their truths in hopes of encouraging someone else” according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). There are multiple outlets mental health advocates can utilize, such as social media or public speaking engagements to spread awareness. Volunteering with local organizations, lobbying public officials, having important discussions with close friends and family, and taking part in protests are all also great ways to advocate for changing stigmas surrounding mental health.
Additionally, as we begin to prepare for the upcoming school year, here are a few strategies that you can take to ensure your mental health is top-notch. The CDC recommends a few self-care strategies, such as eating healthy, well-balanced meals, frequent exercise, getting a good night’s rest, and avoiding substances such as alcohol and tobacco. Professionals also suggest limiting your screen time and going outside, finding hobbies, creating routines, focusing on positive thoughts, and trying to build meaningful connections with others. However, if you find that none of these methods are working and negative feelings are beginning to interfere with your daily activities, consulting with a mental health professional is strongly advised.
VOX Media Cafe reporter Francesca Henderson, 16, attends Woodward Academy.
To connect with NAMI-GA and the mental health youth advocate program, visit namiga.org/get-involved/advocate/.