Mental Health in a Pandemic

Mental Health in a Pandemic

It’s September. As I type this it’s unseasonably cool, a wonderful 57 degrees. I’m drinking coffee in my office after dropping my kids off at school. And yet, I’m reminded by the mask next to me and the empty building. I’m literally the only person here. That life is still not “normal.” Six months in, we are still walking the tight rope between returning to a sense of normalcy and living in a pandemic. There are no simple answers, and everyone is making decisions based on what they believe to be best for their unique situation. Opinions are strong and stress levels are high.

As schools are starting, online or in-person, we are starting to see at Teen Life the impacts that life in the past six months have had on our students – the ones that live in our homes, go to our schools, and the ones we interact with on a regular basis. And honestly, it makes me stop and think about what we need to do now. Allow me to explain.

Today, I ran across an article on NPR stating what schools and experts have all been thinking for the past 6 months. Per the article, early studies suggest that “teen and youth anxiety and depression are getting worse since COVID lockdowns began in March.” In fact, the initial data collected between March and June 2020 indicated that for youth age 18 to 24, that 1 in 4 had “seriously considered suicide in the past 30 days.” Let me say that again 1 in 4. 25%.

But let me take it a little bit closer to home for some of us. Texas. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram posted this article in 2019 which references the CDC’s Texas High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey. In 2019, 18.9% of Texas high school students surveyed indicated they had seriously considered attempting suicide in the 12 months prior to the survey. 15% of students made a plan and 10% had made a suicide attempt. An astounding 38.3% of high school students in Texas felt sad or hopeless. Every statistic listed above is higher than the national average.

One more step. Let’s talk Fort Worth. Data from the same survey indicated that in 2019, 14.8% of high school students in Fort Worth had seriously considered attempting suicide in the 12 months prior to the survey. 12.6% of Fort Worth students had made a plan and 11.1% reported a suicide attempt. 33.5% of Fort Worth high school students reported feeling sad or hopeless. 1 in 3.

Those local numbers – that was before COVID. Before students were cut off from peers and other positive adult influences. Before the average of students seriously considering suicide, which Texas is consistently above, were estimated to jump to almost 25%.

The NPR Article makes a few suggestions and I’d like to summarize and expound on them here.

  1. Watch for red flags – Be on the lookout for sadness that persists for days, for anger that is uncommon for the student, for comments about wanting to disappear or indicating that no one cares.
  2. Check in regularly – It seems easy, but often is challenging when everyone else is always around. Be willing to listen to their thoughts and feelings. Don’t be afraid to ask directly if your student is considering self-harm or suicide.
  3. Look for opportunities for your student to interact – Maybe it’s sports, maybe at a job, maybe they can volunteer, maybe it’s allowing them space to interact with a mentor. Encourage your student to find a space to see peers and other positive role models.
  4. Seek help – If you are concerned about a student, ask for help. Find a therapist. Call a hotline number. Contact the school for a referral.

Mental health during a pandemic can’t be overlooked and it’s fitting that September is also National Suicide Prevention Month. Check in on your student. Check on your own mental health. Pay attention. What you do and your willingness to be active in students’ lives, can make a huge difference.

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, reach out for help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is open 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255.

Beth Nichols

Beth Nichols

Program Director

With her background in social work and experience as a mom of 4, Beth’s perspective is invaluable. She has had the opportunity in both her personal and professional life to encounter youth from a variety of situations.
The Trauma of No School

The Trauma of No School

It’s been 8 weeks. Eight weeks since life felt “normal.” Eight weeks since my kids went to school, since my husband and I have been out for a date, since I worked in the same location as my co-workers. Eight weeks filled with fun memories with my husband and kids. Eight weeks filled with hard decisions, fighting siblings, and days spent trying to spin all of the plates. Eight weeks filled with joy and guilt and frustration all mixed together. While eight weeks seems so long, in many ways, I also know that this too will pass. That the hard days will give way to better days.

However, for many students, the last eight weeks have looked very different than for my family and me. Truthfully, traumatic might be a better word to describe it.

I read an NPR article this past week entitled Closed Schools Are Creating More Trauma For Students. This article put into words what so many of us at Teen Life and so many of our school partners are thinking and saying. Closing schools is traumatic for so many of the students that we as facilitators at Teen Life interact with each week. For many of our students, school is one of the few places they feel safe and seen. One of the few places where there is a caring adult who is willing to help when life seems overwhelming. A place where someone is available to help process feelings in contrast to a place where students can be easily triggered.

Between closed schools, social isolation, food scarcity and parental unemployment, the coronavirus pandemic has so destabilized kids’ support systems that the result, counselors say, is genuinely traumatic.

Cory Turner

Closed Schools Are Creating More Trauma For Students (NPR)

Schools provide much needed “check-ins” for students of all ages. Cook Children’s recently reported that they had seen 6 cases of severe child abuse in one week as the stay at home order began, when they typically see that many cases over the span of a month.

So, with all of this potential trauma, what do we do now? Here are a few ideas.

  1. Maintain some level of human connection – Zoom calls, phone calls, FaceTime, MarcoPolo – whatever works for you. This applies to adults and students alike.
  2. Check in with the students you know. Text, call, interact on socials. If you are a parent, take a few extra minutes to talk about what concerns your child has and what they wish for or miss the most.
  3. Normalize the feelings. It’s normal and appropriate to be frustrated or sad or mad. Or to be all of those at once. Help the students you live with and interact with remember that as Franciene Sabens states in the NPR article: “It’s OK to not be OK. I mean, most of the world is not OK right now.”
  4. Lastly, start planning for how to transition back to school, even when that seems an eternity away. Students will still be figuring out what happens next and how has life changed after many months away from “normal.”

“School leaders should right now be planning for the future, asking how they can best support students when they come back to school, Laura Ross, [a middle school counselor in Lawrenceville, Ga] says, “making sure that we’re prepared to deal with some of those feelings that are going to increase — of anxiousness, of grief, of that disconnect that they had for so long.”

Cory Turner

Closed Schools Are Creating More Trauma For Students (NPR)

I cannot tell you if or when life will look like it did before COVID-19. However, we at Teen Life hope that you are able to continue to serve the students in your lives for the next 8 weeks, 8 months, or 8 years despite the trauma experienced and the inevitable challenges that lay ahead today and in the future.

Beth Nichols

Beth Nichols

Program Director

With her background in social work and experience as a mom of 4, Beth’s perspective is invaluable. She has had the opportunity in both her personal and professional life to encounter youth from a variety of situations. 

Peace on Earth

Peace on Earth

I have been listening to Christmas music. It’s one of my favorite things about this season. Many of my favorite songs sing about peace. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, Silent Night, Do You Hear What I Hear, The Little Drummer Boy, I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day. The words Peace on Earth ring throughout these songs. And yet, when I look around Christmas doesn’t look peaceful to me. It looks more like Black Friday shoppers fighting over a cheap TV.

Black Friday Chaos
It looks like managing a full calendar of events similar to this.
Full Calendar
It looks like spending hours picking the perfect gifts and managing expectations of what Christmas should look like.
Perfect christmas
Versus what it actually does look like.

It also means spending time with family – for better or for worse depending on the situation.

As we approach these last few days before Christmas, here are a few ideas on ways to add peace to your Christmas.

  • Set apart some personal time. Instead of always being with extended family and friends, set aside an afternoon or evening or a weekend to have a low key no pressure schedule.
  • Set appropriate boundaries. I know this is easier said than done. But say no, when you need to say no. Be purposeful in what conversations you engage in over the Christmas dinner table.
  • Set realistic expectations. For yourself. For your kids. For your family. Check out this post if you need some ideas!
  • Breathe! No matter what. Be sure to keep taking deep breaths!

From all of us at Teen Life, we wish you a peace-filled, joyful, Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!

Beth Nichols

Beth Nichols

Program Director

With her background in social work and experience as a mom of 4, Beth’s perspective is invaluable. She has had the opportunity in both her personal and professional life to encounter youth from a variety of situations.
Good Enough

Good Enough

A few weeks ago, I got the email. It was from the state of Texas and it was notifying me that STAAR scores were available for 2 of my kiddos. I knew it would be coming because I had seen several social media posts of parents applauding their own children for how well they had done:

“Only missed 1 question!”
“Perfect Score!”
“Mastery Level Scores!”

However, statistically, those students were the exception, not the rule. No one was posting about their child who scored in the “Did Not Meet Grade Level” or “Approaching Grade Level” categories.

We live in a world that quantifies and ranks. Our students are no exception. They have GPAs, Class Rank, ACT/SAT scores, STAAR, band chairs, athletic depth charts, and more. Even my elementary aged kids can tell you their reading level or Lexile level. They can tell you how many students in their class did not pass STAAR last year. They announce a valedictorian at my daughter’s middle school at the end of 8th grade. The list goes on and on.

I was sitting in Karate with my youngest a few weeks ago. As he has moved up belt levels, it has become more challenging for him. He isn’t even in first grade yet, but here is yet another ranking system to compare everyone. He is frustrated and disheartened.

In the middle of the class a few weeks ago, his instructor stopped and had everyone sit down. He turned to the long string of parents watching along the walls and threw out this line:

“Better is always good enough.”

Again:

“Better is always good enough.”

Twice. Because maybe we didn’t hear him the first time.

Such poignant words I needed to hear. I am naturally bent toward perfectionism – just ask my husband. I push myself hard and want to be at the top if there is a ranking to be had. But for many, that ranking system only reinforces that they are not good enough. That they did not pass or make all A’s or make the first string. Students (and adults) feel they could never possibly achieve enough and at some point, they quit trying. In karate, it looks like a child earning a stripe for a skill they haven’t mastered yet but have worked really hard on for the past few weeks and are improving on.

Let’s take that to a different level – Many of the students we encounter everyday have faced very real struggles or trauma in life. There will probably never be a top rank in any traditional system for many of them. But what if we, as a group, shouted from the rooftops that better is always good enough. What if we adjusted our expectations to reflect that philosophy?

Today, she actually tried and did her best on the math test and brought home a 60 – but she actually tried. Better is always good enough.

Today, he apologized after disobeying everything you said. Better is always good enough.

Today, she yelled at another student, but she didn’t get into a physical altercation with them – better is always good enough.

Today, he asked for help instead of just quitting – better is always good enough.

Too often we want our children and the students we work with to be the best. To reach the stars. To be the top. But sometimes, in reaching for the stars, we miss the small victories. The victories we need to applaud in order to keep the students in our lives more motivated and trying. We need to acknowledge that what is a victory for one student would not even be on the radar for another student. That a victory might not be a win by everyone else’s standards.

But to be successful in helping our students, our children, our peers we need to have a moment for Better Is Always Good Enough.

Beth Nichols

Beth Nichols

Program Director

With her background in social work and experience as a mom of 4, Beth’s perspective is invaluable. She has had the opportunity in both her personal and professional life to encounter youth from a variety of situations. 

5 Ways to Connect with a Teen

5 Ways to Connect with a Teen

In my Teen Life Support Group last semester, I had a student who seemingly did not want to be there. She refused to talk. She crossed her arms. She kept her head down. After the first week, we talked to her and said that she didn’t have to talk but needed to participate as a member of the group. She reluctantly did the activities, but still never spoke a word.

A few weeks later, another student asked about my family. I explained that my parents live in Alabama, and I don’t see them very often because of the distance. Immediately, my standoffish student spoke. “Wait, you’re from Alabama? Me too.” In that moment, we had created a connection.

Connection. It sounds so easy, right? But how often do we strive to achieve it and come up short? Sometimes, finding a commonality is like finding a needle in a haystack. Some days I wonder if I have anything at all in common with the teens I’m with. Some days I wonder if they even want to connect with me at all.

In their book, The Connected Child, Dr. Karyn Purvis, Dr. David Cross, and Wendy Sunshine walk through a series of connecting principals to help us as parents, teachers, youth ministers, or friends of young people who are struggling and yet seem to reject our help. In order to connect, we have to engage with students. Here are five of their strategies:

 

  1. Behavioral Matching: Reflect your student’s behavior or physical position. This increases their ability to feel safe. It’s less complicated than it seems. When my daughter wants to talk at night, I lay down next her instead of standing over her.  If my smaller child wants to play with cars on the floor, I sit on the floor as well. Find the natural comfort behavior for your teen and match it without even mentioning it.

 

  1. Playful Engagement: Be playful in your conversations. We adults often want to get to the point, address the problem, and fix it. But they often need us to break the ice. We do that by showing that we can have fun. When my teen doesn’t want to do something they deem embarrassing, I do it first. If they are frustrated, say “Whoa? I didn’t know you were the boss!” Let them know they are safe even in disagreements. You can have a deeper conversation once there is more connection.

 

  1. Create Eye ContactWe live in a world where students don’t look at each other. They look at screens. But the eyes are powerful.  Look your students in the eyes and they will know they are cared for. As parents, how often do we yell down the hall or up the stairs. How would things change if we spent more time looking in our teenagers’ eyes?

 

  1. Share Healthy Touch: Give a hug. Pat them on the back. Hold their hand. Play with their hair. If you aren’t sure if it’s ok, ask permission. Students often want to know you care, and you don’t have to use words to show up.

 

  1. Be aware of your tone of voiceAre you loud? Are you frustrated? Are you talking quickly or slowly? Do you even know? You can start and end a conversation just by using your tone. You also can be authoritative without being demeaning or unkind.

 

Connecting through engagement is hard, but as Dr. Karyn Purvis says, “When you connect to the heart of a child, everything is possible.”

My student from Alabama? After she learned we were from the same place, everything shifted. That tiny connection was all it took to help make our group safe for her. She was able to talk through some significant things happening at her home all because of connection.  

A week after group ended, the interventionist stopped me in the hall.  She raved about how this girl was totally different than she was 8 weeks before. What a powerful lesson about the potential power that can be unleashed with just a little connection!

 

Beth Nichols

Beth Nichols

Program Director

With her background in social work and experience as a mom of 4, Beth’s perspective is invaluable. She has had the opportunity in both her personal and professional life to encounter youth from a variety of situations.