Before the pandemic, Aya Raji’s days were jam-packed. She woke up at 6:30 a.m. and hurried off to school. After classes, she practiced kick-flips with her skateboarding club and hosted “Twilight” movie nights for friends.
Once her school turned to remote learning, starting last spring and continuing this fall, the days grew long and lonely. Nothing could distract her from the bleak news as she stared at her laptop for hours during virtual class. She couldn’t sleep, up until 4 a.m., her mind racing with anxiety.
“I felt like I was trapped in my own little house, and everyone was far away,” the 14-year-old New Yorker, said. “When you’re with friends, you’re completely distracted, and you don’t think about the bad stuff going on. During the beginning of quarantine, I was so alone. All the sad things I used to brush off, I realized I couldn’t brush them off anymore.”
The social isolation of the pandemic has taken a toll on the mental health of many Americans. But the impact has been especially severe on teenagers, who rely on their friends to navigate the maze and pressures of high school life.
Research shows that adolescents depend on their friendships to maintain a sense of self-worth and to manage anxiety and depression. A recent study of 3,300 high school students found that nearly one-third reported feeling unhappy or depressed in recent months. And while it might seem counterintuitive for a generation used to bonding with friends via texts, TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram, more than one-quarter of those students said they did not feel connected to teachers, classmates or their school community.
“A lot of adults assume teens have it easy,” Aya said. “But it’s hitting us the hardest.”
Since the start of the pandemic, the National Alliance on Mental Illness has heard from many young adults experiencing anxiety and depression, which the organization attributes partly to social isolation. The group has cautioned parents and teachers to look for warning signs, including severe risk-taking behavior, significant weight loss, excessive use of drugs or alcohol and drastic changes in mood.
Granted, for some students, the beginning of quarantine brought a measure of relief. They no longer had cliques to impress or bullies to ward off. But that “honeymoon phase” passed quickly, according to Dr. Cora Breuner, a pediatrician. As stressful as adolescent relationships can be, they are also essential for the formation of personal identity.
“Individuation and development of independence is thwarted or slowed way down when they’re sitting at home all day with parents in the next room,” said Breuner, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics.
The twin crises of the pandemic and the economic downturn have imposed new personal hardships on students. Some are taking care of family members who have fallen sick with COVID-19; others have been thrust into dealing with their parents’ unemployment or financial strain.
Nicole DiMaio, who recently turned 19, developed techniques to manage her anxiety over the years. She talks to friends, exercises and reads books. But nothing seemed to work during the early months of the pandemic.
Nicole’s mother fell sick with COVID in late March after caring for a patient with the coronavirus at Coney Island Hospital, where she works as a nurse. Nicole became her mother’s caretaker. She woke up daily at 5 a.m. to clean the house, watch over her younger sister and cook meals, which she deposited outside her mother’s bedroom door, while squeezing in schoolwork.
“Being 18 and taking it all in is a lot,” she said. “My chest would get really heavy, and everything inside my body would be jumping. The tears would start coming. I would hyperventilate and pace the house until my sister brought me back to reality and said, ‘Hey, you’re here, relax.’ She’s stronger than I am.”
When school turned remote, Catherine Khella, a health teacher in New York City, asked her students to keep journals, which she read for signs of mental distress. Many were struggling but hesitant to reach out. One student, Adolfo Jeronimo, wrote about becoming nocturnal to find some peace and quiet.
“I’d sleep all day because my sister was up crying and there was barely any food,” said Adolfo, 15, whose father was hospitalized with COVID-19 and was unable to work for four months. “Usually my friends would’ve helped me, but I didn’t have them, so it was harder to deal with. I felt like I was suffocating.”
The activities that young people previously relied on for stability and joy have been disrupted. Extracurricular clubs and birthday parties are mostly canceled. So are rites of passage like prom and homecoming.
Zoom is no substitute
Students spend vast portions of their time staring at Zoom screens. Without school events, many say they are struggling to get out of bed in the morning.
Researchers have begun investigating how today’s high school students will bear the long-term consequences of the pandemic in terms of their education and economic futures.
Some psychologists speculate that socially, too, this young adult cohort could be stunted by the amount of time they have been forced to spend alone. Children typically learn the basics of making friends at a young age, but high school is a crucial period for developing nuanced communication skills.
“Learning how to navigate the inner webs of relationships happens in high school,” said Dr. Jessi Gold, a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis. “When you retreat behind a computer, you lose some of those social skills.”
Help is available
Experts offered several resources for teenagers seeking assistance for mental health issues, including the resource center of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Crisis Text Line or the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
Dr. Gabrielle Shapiro, chair of the American Psychiatric Association’s Council on Children, Adolescents and Their Families, recommended that schools offer students lessons on how to share their emotions.
And whenever possible, teenagers need to see their friends.
“Kids need time to be kids again without thinking about all the worries going on in the world,” said Jennifer Rothman, senior manager of youth and young adult initiatives at the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
As for Aya, she’s rebuilding healthy habits — spending time with friends outside, and getting to sleep at a reasonable hour. She has started meditating and listening to music to calm her nerves. But she still wrestles with spending time alone in her thoughts.
“Being in another person’s presence makes you feel OK,” she said. “When I can’t see my friends, I feel like the world is caving in.”