GUEST BLOG: Mental Health during the pandemic - Sydenham High School

GUEST BLOG: Mental Health during the pandemic


As we begin to consider the impact of this pandemic on children and young people’s mental health, I collected advice from over 100 teenagers about how to stay mentally healthy in the midst of a pandemic. I’ll simmer down some of their wise advice into the following:

  • Talk to someone about how you feel, because life is really hard
  • Make time to practise gratitude and breathe
  • Enjoy your friends, hang out with your family, and put your phone away!
  • Learn a new hobby and dance around your house

Part of the joy of working with teens, is that their advice is often incredibly sound. Let me expand on their wisdom, because we can all conclude from lived-experience and research, that this experience has impacted children and young people’s health. How do we find healthiness, and healing in a global experience of sickness?

As she hovered outside, “do you have a minute?” It’s a line I hear more than ever before as a School Counsellor. As we began talking, she reflected “it’s hard to believe it won’t be like this forever.” Her heart is heavy from friendship difficulties, a phone that reinforces regularly that she isn’t enough, parents that seem to work even longer hours than they did before, siblings that are annoying, and an existential/real dread about the reality of climate change. Back in the Summer I wrote an article “Camp Corona”. At the time, there was a sort of novelty to living in a pandemic, there was yoga on balconies and long evening walks. Now we’re deep into COVID-19 I hear many people talking about how they haven’t actually paused or rested. The illusion that not commuting would save hours each day seems to have somehow disappeared and become sucked into the rest of life without us even realising. So how do we find magic in the chaos? Rest in the mundane? Resilience in the exhaustion? Let me expand on advice from some of my favourite teenagers.

  • Talk to someone about how you feel

Research indicates that, during the pandemic, mental health in young people has become much worse. We also know that children and young people are incredibly resilient and adaptive. The first piece of advice from the young people I interviewed was: talk to someone.

During adolescent years, there is a shift from using parents as their main emotional support, to beginning to more closely rely on friends. Being a teenager today is drastically impacted by the change in technology and the isolation imposed by lockdowns during the pandemic, both of which hugely impact their social development.

We know that social interactions are key to emotional development. There are different types of reassurance that comes from a parent/caregiver telling a child not to worry, that is similar but different to having a peer telling them not to worry about the same situation. Both are essential and important to children’s development.

There are many things we cannot change at the moment, including how many people we see and how we socialise. However, when we pause long enough with someone, we hear their story being told. Sometimes for children and teens, their story is told through behaviours, tone and body language. When a child feels heard, as someone validates their emotions and feelings, the world begins to feel safer and more manageable.

Consider the experience of a young person who is growing up in a world where there is likely a global elevation in cortisol (the stress hormone) due to the pandemic. The prefrontal cortex, a part of our brain that is involved in thinking and planning ahead, preparing for the future, doesn’t fully develop until mid-20s, so surviving in a pandemic can very literally feel synonymous with forever. We are seeing a rise in anxiety, school refusal and sense of disconnection in students. When we are all going through a similar experience, it can be hard to sometimes truly hear another. Ask a teen about how they’re really doing, maybe make sure your teen is also being checked in with by friends or other safe adults in their life; ask them what they’ve binge watched and watch some tik-toks together!

  • Practising being grateful and take deep breaths

Coronacoaster became a term we so frequently used at the start of the pandemic, referring to the emotional rollercoaster of COVID-19. I often start therapy sessions with children by asking them their highs, lows, and gratitudes of the week. In part, it gives me insight into their week and what has mattered to them, but further, it acknowledges that which has been hard, good, and grounding. When we allow all of those things to coexist it can feel more honest and authentic.

Gratitude is not the cure, but the start of pivoting our perspective. When we practise gratitude, it allows the worried voice to simmer down a notch (perhaps not always much), and as it lowers slightly, our brains are able to imagine more, breathe deeper, and continue to imagine how to keep pivoting. In this year, there has been a lot more anxiety, manifesting in school refusal, isolation from friends, or simply as more irritability and worry. For many students, the anxious internal voice tells them consistently that they are not enough: not pretty enough, not smart enough, not funny enough, not liked enough, not interesting enough, the list could go on. The body activates anxiety in response to both real and perceived threats (physical or emotional). When we take a deep breath, it regulates our central nervous system, allowing it to begin to feel safe again. As we regulate our bodies we can begin to listen to what our fear is. As we slow down into what we are grateful for, it allows us to have our eyes open to seeing and finding a little of the magic in the chaos.

  • Enjoy your friends, hang out with your family, and put your phone away!

I was surprised when I read teens describing enjoying the family walk (although “it’s still kinda boring”), or beginning to play again with their siblings (not to be mistaken for the fact that “siblings are still annoying”). Stuart Brown, talks about the importance of play for all of us in his TED talk. I’m curious, where have you felt a sense of play in the last month? What we mirror for our children, is arguably more impactful than what we teach them. So slow down and consider how you play, how you engage with your friends and family, and how you interact with your phone? I don’t want to make phones the root of all evil, mostly because the documentary “The Social Dilemma” already did that for most of us. However, we can all probably agree that our relationship with technology has problems, it beckons us all into this boundaryless world where beauty in real life is insufficient, where expectations of how accessible we are emotionally are constant, and the reminder that everyone else’s lives are quite simply better than ours.

I hear this from most adults too at the moment, feeling so stretched thin and exhausted. “If I’m a good ____ (fill in the blank) then I’m not being a good ____ (fill in the blank).” It feels hard to be a good parent and a good employee, to be focused at work and also attentive to friends or a partner. Burnout, manifesting as the feeling of being exhausted, wondering about the point and value of things, feeling less energized and more distant from the things you use to love, is rife at the moment. Many of the ways we used to historically cope are no longer so freely accessible, and so perhaps sometimes the goal is to make a one degree shift, to pivot just a fraction. Because once we pivot one degree, the next degree is even closer to turn.

  • Learn a new hobby and dance around your house

When I ask a young person about her weekend, like many teens, there’s a lot of time in her room, scrolling and chatting to friends. Her sense of purpose is low outside of being a friend, daughter, and student. Her sports practise is back online again, the evenings are getting cold and there is only so much fun sitting in the park in the rain with one friend after school, she occasionally shows up for the family walk but it wouldn’t be her first choice of activity. She looks at me, “I wish I knew what I wanted…I want to be left alone, but then I’m bored. I wish I had something to do, but then whatever my mum suggests just sounds so…meh.” The internal sense of being “lost and disconnected” is so very real. It can feel overwhelming to begin to know how to change it. Many of the teens I spoke with, described the importance of learning something new: playing the ukulele, making tik tok dances with their family, learning to bake, trying yoga or cycling again. When we feel disconnected, it can be important to try and remind our bodies of a fraction of what it feels to feel alive or connected this week. Over 25% of students advised dancing as a way to stay mentally healthy. Dancing seems to interrupt anxious pathways and spirals with dopamine, so turn your music up and have a boogie!

There is a lot of advice in the world right now about how to cope, I hope the tips from these teens gives you a chance to pause and a reminder to dance! So perhaps after reading, you won’t start a 100 day yoga challenge, or take up knitting. Perhaps you won’t suddenly become the family who loves games night. However, I hope there is space to listen slowly and curiously to how you are doing, and how a young person in your life is doing. Listening simply to allow the other to feel known, not because you need to fix or change anything. Perhaps you will have space to reflect on what you’re grateful for together, and perhaps there’ll be some dancing in the kitchen. Perhaps this will allow a small degree shift, a moment of magic in the chaos, a slightly longer deeper breath. For tomorrow is another day, where we will all try again to be kind, take care, and play well.

– Fiona Gray, School Counsellor

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