COVID-19 has changed the world and the way we live in it. During this time of loss, change, and uncertainty of the future, everyone is experiencing a multitude of different mental health challenges, struggles, and responses. The experience of high schoolers in particular is a unique one that deserves more space in the news, media, and global conversations. In comparison to previous lighthearted and celebratory ends of years past, I find my current reflections of my junior year to be melancholic and heavy.
It was difficult to comprehend the magnitude of COVID and the degree to which highschool life would be affected when the pandemic was just beginning to come to light in the United States. We were first in denial, carrying on with our lives, treating it like a far away and distant issue. It seemed unreal that life could change in such drastic ways. We clung on to hopes of prom, graduation, and end of the year celebrations that got us through long days in math. Plans for activities and seeing family over summer still seemed possible. When the reality of COVID sunk in, we were faced with insurmountable sadness and the weight of what had been lost.
Since my freshman year of high school, I have looked forward to picking out a prom dress with my mom. My friend Sophie was excited to visit with family in England she hasn’t seen for over a year. My friend Lillie couldn’t wait to graduate highschool with her peers. Yearbook signings, end of the year carnival, taking the SAT. Even a few months in, it is difficult to internalize how forever changed our lives are. We try not to talk or think about it, afraid of what confronting reality will mean.
One of the hardest parts has been the absence of school relationships. For my friend Sophie, motivation to complete school work and stay engaged comes from interactions in class and in the halls with friends, classmates, and teachers. Not having those opportunities to connect with peers on a personal and face-to-face level has made it much more difficult to feel motivated and inspired to finish off the school year. For my friend Lillie, who is graduating her last year of high school, it is incredibly heartbreaking to know she can’t say goodbye to the peers and teachers she spent the last four years building relationships with.
Lillie described a strong sense of regret. Having planned on going to prom, school dances, and important events her senior year, she is distraught over not having the opportunity to create such cherished highschool memories with friends to hold on to for the rest of her life. She also reported a loss in the pride that comes along with being a senior throughout COVID. While school administration and staff has done their best to recognize and celebrate seniors, with no graduation or celebratory parties possible, the end of her highschool experience has felt anticlimactic and lacking.
For many juniors and seniors, the anxiety and uncertainty of what the future will hold and look like is overwhelming. Freshman year in college and senior year in highschool are some of the most celebrated moments of adolescence. We wonder what we will miss out on, and the ways in which our lives and youthood will be impacted. One of Lillie’s friend’s dad lost his job and mom is now working part-time. Due to her parents current financial shortcomings, she can no longer afford the college she has been excited about for all of high school, and will now be going to her 5th choice university. It is experiences like these that exist amongst youth all across the world, and lead to severe mental health concerns and feelings of despair, defeat, and loss.
During this time of heaviness and darkness, however, there has been positivity too. As highschoolers with schedules bursting at the seams full of extracurriculars and school work, it can be incredibly difficult to practice self care with life running at full speed during the normal school year. A study conducted by the American Psychological Association reported that teen stress levels during a normal school year exceed what they believe to be healthy, and pass average adult stress levels. COVID-19 has permitted us to slow down, take a step back, and make ourselves and our mental health a priority. Sophie and Lillie have both turned to exercise and reading to take care and feel better about themselves. Sophie has also enjoyed using checklists for motivation and keeping a balance between family and schoolwork, and catching up on sleep missed due to 1am school nights.
Through all of this sadness and pain, it is so important to take care and make yourself a priority. You can start simple by taking care of your body. Go on walks, eat healthy and balanced meals, and try breathing exercises or meditation. If creativity is more of your thing, try keeping a COVID-19 bullet journal, creating self compassionate art, or doodling with chalk on the sidewalk for your neighbors to enjoy. When especially missing social connection, you might hold a Zoom brunch for you and your friends, try new activities with your pets, or bake cookies on FaceTime with your grandparents.
If you are in immediate crisis or need someone to talk to, please don’t hesitate to reach out for support. A 2017 University of Cambridge study showed that teenagers who depended on and had greater access to mental health support services were less likely to become clinically depressed later on in life. Talking about the way you are feeling and leaning on professionals and support systems is imperative to taking care of yourself and feeling better. This is a hard time, and you deserve to reach out and receive support.
~ Olivia Nilsson