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High school hardships and COVID-19: how to help anxious teens through online learning

Written by: Amanda Dematos, SHN Social Worker, Mental Health

With local school boards settling on a hybrid model of learning for high school students, with the option of full-time online learning for those who choose, it’s important that we understand how these choices will impact our teens so that we can support their well-being and success.

Strong academic performance is considered the gold standard for our school systems. High achievements, challenging and innovative curriculums, and a push to future success are most often used to measure school performance.

But what about the non-academic purpose of school? The incidental learning and contributions the school community makes to the development of well-rounded, socially adept, and resilient young people is given much less priority, yet research has repeatedly shown that these two factors – academics and development – are intertwined, and one rarely succeeds without the other.

High school students are still growing and they have significant developmental milestones to meet, including a focus on managing social relationships and a growing interest in romantic and intimate relationships. Introspection, self-awareness, and understanding of their role in a larger society are also expanding during the high school years, as teens advance their more moral and ethical thinking, problem-solving, independent thinking, and future planning skills.

These milestones are not taught through textbooks and lesson plans. They are mostly achieved through the unscripted, unplanned interactions that occur every day in the school community: from meeting new people, the beginnings and endings of relationships, and mentorship and guidance from teachers, to discovering a new talent or passion, excelling in a sport they have never tried before, and being exposed to different cultures, opinions, struggles. For some, school is even a refuge, an escape from difficult home situations, and a place to receive support and encouragement from adults outside their household.

Of course, some teens will flourish academically as the pressures of attending school in-person are alleviated. However, if there is not enough focus on their non-academic development, their emotional wellbeing could suffer and we may well see a spike in anxiety, depression, and other mental illness. In turn, academics may also suffer.

While it may be tempting for teens with social anxiety to avoid in-person interactions, anxiety is never treated through avoidance because the opportunity to challenge and triumph over anxiety-provoking situations is lost. The danger of this is that the anxiety may become more entrenched and lead to more severe mental health problems later. High school is a training ground of sorts, a place to practice, make mistakes, and learn from others. The loss of these opportunities may lead to a feeling of despondency or lack of faith in the future, which, in turn, can develop into depression.

Many high-schoolers are less worried about catching or spreading COVID-19 (at their age they are familiar with health and safety guidelines), and more worried about: missing their friends; access to their favourite teacher, coach or other adult; and about lost opportunities for sport, recruitments for athletic scholarships, and team camaraderie. They are worried about not having the opportunities to play in a band, act in the school play, and be involved in set design or other artistic pursuits. In other words, they are worried about missing out on all the things that make high school a magical time in their lives.

The good news is that youth are resilient and flexible, and with the right supports, we are better able to stop natural worries from becoming anxiety disorders, or natural feelings of loss from becoming depression. Here are some of the ways we can help:

LISTEN
It is very important that we listen without judgement and without downplaying their concerns. These struggles are real and will likely have a lasting impact if not addressed. Like all of us, teens need the opportunity to talk about their fears; not because they are easy to fix, but because they need validation and empathy.

SUPPORT
Support your teen’s teachers. They are doing the best they can under difficult and ever-changing conditions. No program will be perfect, but working collaboratively and cooperatively with teachers will help teens feel that the system is reliable and secure.

Support your local public health initiatives, wear a mask when you need to, limit large gatherings and social distance when you can. Encourage your teen to do the same.

ENCOURAGE
Encourage your teen to stay in touch with their friends remotely, join online communities, and find socially responsible ways to maintain and develop their relationships.

Encourage them to stay in touch with their passions. Find opportunities for online music or art classes, allow time for physical fitness, and research online leadership or community involvement initiatives.

Encourage contact with teachers, coaches, or other staff with whom they have meaningful relationships.

OBSERVE
Watch for changes to your teen’s daily routine, coping, and mood.

In particular, look for changes to diet, sleeping patterns, hygiene, interest in friendships, or previously enjoyed activities and increasing social isolation. Intervening early can help mitigate the onset of more severe mental illness.

CONNECT
Help your teen connect with the mental health, social, and academic resources that will be offered through their school.

Be aware of your local community counselling services.

Connect with your family doctor for a referral to a more intensive program, such as the Shoniker Clinic, if community and school-based programs do not help.

Be aware of crisis intervention services such as mobile crisis and your local emergency room for mental health emergencies.

School communities provide opportunities for growth, chances to succeed and fail, opportunities for growth and resiliency. Teachers act as mentors, coaches, confidantes, and cheerleaders.

While these opportunities will be limited this year, with the right supports and understanding our teens will make this year the year they need it to be. Although it will be different, it can also be great!

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