Head in the Clouds

by Ahona Dam and Julian Phillips, Centerfold Editors
graphic by Julie Wang

Trying to clear his mind of negative thoughts, junior Noah Wilson* took a five-hour walk down Route 9 in the middle of the summer. Wilson noticed a change within himself when the pandemic started. He felt unmotivated, unaccomplished and struggled to deal with his developing mental health issues under new circumstances.

“For the entire year, I feel like I’ve not progressed or grown in any way,” he said. “There are things I know are important, but I cannot put in nearly as much energy as I used to make for them.”

The pandemic has created a plethora of traumas, causing many to feel isolated and at a general loss of security and safety. These emotions have varied for different people and have increased mental health issues, contributing to a sudden spike in substance use.

Ari Cohen, the programs manager for Families for Depression Awareness, a mental health service that runs various programs in Newton, said the experiences students felt during the pandemic were deeply concerning.

Even before the pandemic, teenagers have struggled with mental health and healthy coping strategies. Feelings of isolation during this time have further exacerbated mental health concerns, Cohen said. 

“With everybody living with this virus, we have everyone experiencing a traumatic event, and trauma makes us more prone to mental health issues,” she said. “We now have this whole group of teens that are traumatized or have lost out on big events.” 

Pandemic Disparities

The onslaught of racially charged events have flooded headlines this year, bringing awareness and opening discussions related to race, identity and inequities in society.

A multitude of traumatic events — especially those racially motivated — and the

current political landscape, have affected students and staff both mentally and emotionally.

From the shootings in Boulder, CO and Atlanta, GA, to the capitol insurrection, to the killings of countless Black people at the hands of police, feelings of hopelessness and isolation have increased for many students and families, guidance counselor and Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education (AWARE) club advisor Sarah Style said.

“Right now we’re at a crossroads with regard to acknowledging the trauma that can come with identity-related violence,” she said. “That’s another piece of the puzzle.”

The pandemic has not only fueled rates of substance use, but it has also unveiled the racial and ethnic disparities concerning behavioral health care access, Style said. She said that larger policies and systems in society have created a divide between those who have access to treatment versus those who have been penalized for substance use disorders. In America, the core of these disparities lie in privilege and race.

“People of color, people from low income families — if they are caught using [substances] it often is contextualized as criminal behavior,” she said. “If people have access to money and white folks, it just doesn’t work out the same way. That’s because of policy.”

Human Rights Watch, a non-governmental organization, reported that while rates of substance use are comparable between races, the Black population was arrested for use at a rate between 2.8 to 5.5 times higher than whites from 1980 to 2007 nationwide. This disparity in individual states reached up to a factor of 11.3.

Lessons From 1918

History reveals patterns that parallel the detrimental mental health effects observed during the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the 1918 influenza pandemic, similar protocols to those used today, including quarantine, maintenance of good personal hygiene and restricted public gatherings were implemented in attempts to halt the spread of the virus.

These restrictions caused far-reaching mental health problems, including heightened feelings of grief due to the deaths of loved ones, and the constant change seen across the world. Crosscut, an online newspaper based in Seattle, WA, reported a noticeable increase of suicide rates in Seattle during the post-pandemic period after World War I.

The American College of Emergency Physicians wrote that by the end of October 1918, “Violence erupted in some areas, with people being shot for not wearing their masks, along with homicides and suicides.”

Though cases of delirium, depression and schizophrenia were reported, a rise in mental disorders did not strictly correlate with the intensity of the pandemic. A report published in the Journal of the American Medical Association tallied 20,000 total suicides in the United States in 1921, a 23% increase compared to 1920.

Connections to present-day teenage mental health issues emerge from the same sense of loss and isolation. The May 2020 National 4-H Council poll surveying over 1,500 teenagers found that 70% of teenagers have struggled with mental health issues during the pandemic, and 64% believe that the pandemic will leave lasting scars on their generation’s mental health.

After a century of reckoning, the 1918 influenza pandemic may serve as a template for how to grapple with present-day pandemic-related mental health issues.

Mental Health Education

The National 4-H Council from the Harris Poll reported that 43% of teenagers dealt with depression during the pandemic. This is a dramatic increase from before the pandemic, when only 20% of teenagers reported having depression.

In face of such increases, stigma is a key factor in limiting access to help. The Harris Poll reported that 79% of teenagers wanted a more inclusive and safe environment at school to talk about mental health. 

Family Aware has led multiple mental health initiatives, representative of a broader national effort to increase awareness around mental health. 

Cohen said that Family Aware’s goal is to educate others on different mental health conditions and open up discussions related to their experience with these conditions. She said that during normal circumstances, their organization would go to community events and schools to lead training and discussions.

 “With our teen audience, we have [brought] trained teen speakers, usually aged 14-25, who have experienced depression or bipolar disorder,” she said. “They come to your school and community and talk about what it’s like to identify a mental health issue, get the help they need, what their life looks like now and their hopes for the future.” 

These support groups in the community are extensively planned to help teenagers gain different perspectives regarding mental health conditions in the community. Despite plans being canceled due to COVID-19, Cohen said that schools have been responsive to reimplementing these community sessions.

Style said that she hopes AWARE can bring students together to have open discussions about mental health issues and destigmatize mental illnesses. She said that while these conversations are important to have under many different circumstances, the club works best from multiple perspectives.

“That means individuals who have a history of struggling with mental illness, and people whose family members have been significantly affected by mental illness,” she said. “When things aren’t talked about, they can fester and grow, and a lot of misconceptions can take over.”

Substance Use Stigma

Despite the efforts of AWARE and Families for Depression Awareness, substance use, an issue intrinsically linked to mental illness, remains heavily stigmatized. According to Livingston et al., 2012, a research paper that aims to find effective mental health intervention strategies, substance misuse is generally more stigmatized than just mental illness.

Due to the sensitive nature of substance dependency and the emotions associated with it, senior Elianna Kruskal, a student leader for AWARE, said that stigma is a major barrier to getting needed help. He said that conversations around substance use are marred with misunderstanding and that some can come off as judgemental.

“There’s a lot of superiority from people who don’t use substances and look down on people who do,” he said. “There’s a myriad of reasons why it’s bad to be judgy and to say it’s a bad thing.”

Wilson said that the pandemic has caused him to become partially dependent on alcohol, although only on his worst days when he feels helpless.

“It’s generally a feeling of despair from realizing I’ve done nothing or wasted lots of good time to have fun,” he said. “With doing nothing, I know I’m doing nothing and it gets worse.”

Despite his occasional reliance on alcohol, Wilson said that the new pandemic environment has prevented him from seeing a therapist.

“There is something about the physical security of a therapist’s office that’s very different from the environment at home, or anywhere else,” he said.

With students like Wilson turning to substances directly due to the pandemic, senior and AWARE club member Grace Mirabile said that she could understand a new desire to use substances.

“Now it’s everyday getting up and logging onto Zoom or going to school for two hours, and that has been a drop in motivation and a reason why people feel like they can or are turning to substance use as a coping mechanism,” she said. “A lot more people are doing it more casually and frequently.”

Moving Forward

Courtney Gavin, a program coordinator at Riverside Community Care, held a virtual therapy session with a student in the spring of 2020. Despite technology mishaps and the struggle to adjust to a new method of communication, she and her clients were able to adapt to a pandemic therapy environment. Gavin said that Riverside’s connection with the schools allowed her to make an almost seamless transition to online sessions.

“There’s this long established relationship that we have with the school system at large, and so fortunately I don’t think the pandemic hits too hard in terms of our ability to continue serving the school system,” she said. “There were already channels of communication that we could maintain.”

Freshman Libby Chalamish said that now more than ever, it is important to educate students about substance use issues. She said that South could improve upon its health and wellness curriculums.

“A lot of the time when things change, people don’t know what to do, and they fall back to things like [substances],” she said. “A lot of the health curriculum has been ways to prevent addictions, but they never talked about what happens once you do develop an addiction.”

Wellness teacher Patrick Jordan-Quern said that given the circumstances of this year, the wellness department decided to integrate mini-lessons into units and focus on building relationships. Student connections have allowed for helpful feedback and input about the class and curriculum.

“There’s a lot of room for students to give their input, let us know what they need, and then it’s our job to take that [input], process it and turn it into a learning moment,” he said. “Feeling connected to people is going to help mitigate or reduce some of the stress and anxiety that we’ve all been facing, especially this year.”

Jishnu Ghosh, a junior at Lincoln-Sudbury, said his school has taken various initiatives in the past to educate students about substances and the consequences related to their use.

“Lincoln-Sudbury has a vape day where the administrators try challenging people who use nicotine to go a day without using it,” he said. “During that day, each class has some sort of education around vaping and how it can be harmful to you.” 

Despite alarming increases in mental health issues and substance use, Kruskal said that there is still reason to be hopeful and that the pandemic may have closed some doors, but also opened others.

“There’s been a positive side to it, in a way that conversations around mental health have opened up a little bit,” he said.

Similarly, Gavin is hopeful that students will use their support systems and reach out when times get tough.

“There is help out there, and there are people who can support you,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to utilize the supports that are there because your school can help get you connected to people who can be helpful.”

*Name changed to protect interviewee’s privacy