Teenage students in Covid isolation: ‘We’re all struggling’

Remote learning, lockdowns and pandemic uncertainty have increased anxiety among adolescents

Remote learning, lockdowns and pandemic uncertainty have increased anxiety and depression among adolescents, and heightened concerns about their mental health. Photograph: iStock

Remote learning, lockdowns and pandemic uncertainty have increased anxiety and depression among adolescents, and heightened concerns about their mental health. Photograph: iStock

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I’m on a Zoom call for work in the living room. My teen son is on a class he can’t quite follow in the kitchen. I hear the occasional request of “cameras on!” by a slightly frustrated teacher who takes her virtual place at my dining table. I am grateful.

I pass my daughter’s bedroom to get something and hear the recorded frantic calls from Betty Ong and crew on board American Airlines Flight 11, hijacked on 9/11. I pause, surprised.

Minutes later my reclusive daughter comes down puffy eyed and pale, unable to speak. She raises her school tablet with a shaky hand. There’s a screenshot of an image I hoped to never have to see again. It is of a man in New York falling headfirst to his death from the Twin Towers. Powerful. Heart-breaking.

I remember that day. It felt like the end of the world. It felt like there was no hope.

So, I question whether in a full lockdown, on the day when Ireland’s cases were the highest rising in the world, should this lesson have gone ahead?

Remote learning, lockdowns and pandemic uncertainty have increased anxiety and depression among adolescents, and heightened concerns about their mental health.

An early study published in JAMA Pediatrics looked at 1,100 students in Hubei province between February and March 2020 and found that over one in five students had symptoms of depression. Further research carried out by Eurofound last April revealed that 55 percent of young adults were at risk of depression.

History lessons are important. World events must be re told in order to teach growing minds valuable lessons. But is now the time for an overview of 9/11?

During a global pandemic would it make sense to bring forward topics that lay less weight on teen spirit? To absorb such heavy history lessons in a bedroom alone on a dark January day, with no access to peers seems like too much.

“We have all been struggling to some degree over the last several months”, says Kiki Martire of the youth support website, Spunout.ie.

“Young people who may be especially vulnerable, isolated or without suitable peer or family support are no exception.”

If a history lesson like this must go ahead during a global pandemic could it be tied in with a class on resilience?

The ever-whirring machine of “getting through” the curriculum, of completing topics and modules and chapters might benefit from temporary modification as life all around us has been modified.

Here we are, working as one to protect the vulnerable at risk of their physical wellbeing. Educators can model that response by adapting to protect our youth and their mental wellbeing.

In an era when we encourage mindfulness in our children, we must be mindful ourselves of what we load upon them and expect them to handle. Mindful not only of the content we deliver, but the timing of that content.

If such lessons must be delivered, many experts agree that it is important to plan time and support for them to process such content. Many teachers advise students not to be stressed but fail to see their topics’ individual workload as a puzzle piece in that stress.

If a history lesson like this must go ahead during a global pandemic could it be tied in with a class on resilience?

Rutger Kortenhorst is a maths teacher who also teaches wellbeing through the ancient practice of yoga and ayurveda at John Scottus Secondary School in Rathmichael, Co Dublin.

His first and second year students are currently on a programme of household jobs.

“Not only must they complete these tasks but approach them with a happy heart,” Rutger says . “Making others happy makes us happy”.

The students were asked to keep a diary and enter one event each day where they made someone a little happier.

“Completing these tasks is offering a sense of satisfaction when so many things remain on hold,” says Kortenhorst.

Students are asked to observe how they feel and compare this to when their heart feels heavy.

“They often forget that the point is not just doing jobs but making others happy. I often have to remind them, did you do it with a heavy heart or with a happy heart?”

Kortenhorst’s topics are in line with a recent study by S Singh, published on PubMed on the Impact of Covid-19 and lockdown on the mental health of children and adolescents:

“Teachers have a role to play in the promotion of mental health among students. They can discuss what is wellbeing and how it is important for students. They can assist in teaching simple exercises, including deep breathing, muscle relaxation, distraction, and positive self -talk,” Kortenhorst says.

“Virtual workshops can be conducted in which ‘life skills’ related to coping in stress can be in focus by using more practical examples... There is a crying need for positive support towards our teenagers, even if they don’t appear to listen. Our youngsters probably don’t need long sermons, but what we find uplifting at this time, we might be able to share with them.”

Jen Trzeciak, an occupational therapist and eMental Health clinical manager with Jigsaw.ie says its My World Survey shows that school can be among the top stressors for adolescents.

“It’s important though to recognise that many teachers and parents understand the big role they play in supporting the mental health and wellbeing of young people and are being hugely proactive in finding ways to do this,” she says.

Act as a role model. Let your young person see you putting things in place to support your own wellbeing

“Since the lockdown in March, we have seen more than 10,000 teachers accessing our online courses at Jigsaw.ie to help them with this. And many more teachers and parents have attended live webinars about supporting youth mental health. Jigsaw.ie has seen a significant increase in visitors to the site over the past year and we continue to support young people, their families and those who work with them.”

More than ever parents and educators must work together to support wellbeing in our students right now. Students won’t ask but believe me they need it. The impact of Covid 19 on Irish teens is only beginning to emerge, and we need to tread lightly.

Boosting wellbeing during Covid-19: 

Tips for teens

1. Get up at a reasonable time. Don’t stay in your pyjamas.

2. Do set a daily routine which balances work, exercise and treats. If exercise is not part of a routine you are more likely to come up with reasons not to do it.

3. Do listen to things that are going to make you feel better, like good podcasts. Limit negative news.

4. Do learn to cook, treat yourself, relax (but don’t lay there worrying).

5. Limit social media and do something active. Set up a book club or something which requires active participation.

6. Friendship requires effort and vulnerability to grow and maintain. Show acts of kindness; be fair and loyal. Try and engage more. Create a check-in online with a pod of three or four friends who are good for you.

Tips by Trish Murphy (trishmurphy-psychotherapy.com)

Tips for parents
1. Remain empathetic, non-judgmental and approachable.

2. Plan connection but also provide space/independence.

3. Stay curious – enquire before jumping to ‘knowing the right thing’ for them.

4. Mirror reality – help them frame what is going on in their lives, how far they’ve come and where they are going.

5. Act as a role model. Let your young person see you putting things in place to support your own wellbeing.

6. Don’t avoid difficult conversations. If you are worried about your young person’s mental health try to find a quiet time to check in with them. Let them know you’re concerned and that you’re there to support them. Don’t rush to fix things. Young people often just need someone to listen and acknowledge how they are feeling.

Tips by Kiki Martire (spunout.ie ) and Jen Trzeciak (jigsaw.ie)