Many students grow up in communities that expect extraordinary achievement both in and out of the classroom. Over the past two years a global pandemic halted student participation in extracurricular activities, delayed standardized testing, and caused school closures. While some students, at least initially, thrived with Zoom school, setting their own pace and getting relief from extracurricular pressures, many others suffered anxiety and depression.
Adolescence already demands a stockpile of coping skills to successfully make the transition to young adulthood; unfortunately, actions to control the pandemic stripped away many of the coping mechanisms that make the stresses of adolescence and its accompanying social and academic pressures more manageable. Canceled sports practices and social distancing measures made fun forms of exercise and important interpersonal connections less accessible. Teens with various mental health challenges were often left without the tools they relied on to manage them. While the pandemic has caused tangible shifts in everyday life for all of us, these changes magnified problems for many of our most vulnerable adolescents.
The pandemic also altered many academic requirements for students; for example, test-optional college admissions became increasingly popular. While these changes reduced stress for some students, for others the uncertainty surrounding the optional status of test scores, once believed to be essential, increased academic pressure as grades and rigor of coursework took on greater importance. Thus, for two cycles of high school seniors, navigating the pressures of schoolwork and college applications in unconventional learning environments has not made academic life easier. These, along with changing academic requirements, made school more challenging and especially vital to recognize signs that students may be struggling.
What can we do to help? Students’ mental health can be improved by surrounding them with a compassionate support system that understands the pressures of adolescence. While many students may feel uncomfortable discussing their mental health challenges, fostering compassionate, nonjudgmental conversations may help them express their emotions more freely and encourage them to ask for support. For example, if you notice your student sleeping less or self-isolating, let them know what you are observing and ask how you can best support them. Be sure to emphasize that their negative feelings are not permanent and assure them that they have the ability to improve their mental health with the aid of supportive family, friends and counseling professionals. For teens with test anxiety, helping them identify a clear-cut system for test preparation that reflects their learning style can lead to study habits that will set them up for success in college.
More generally, practices like journaling, mindfulness, meditation, and deep breathing can be employed to improve mental health. Many high schools now offer yoga to fill a PE requirement, and I often hear students tell me how much they enjoy this class. Therapy or other treatment may also be helpful, especially when a dedicated care provider can support a troubled teen while taking emotional, familial, and cultural factors into account. In high achieving, pressurized environments, it is especially important to create space for supportive conversations and, as necessary, take action to bolster adolescent mental health.