Students’ mental health suffers during the pandemic

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Claire Goldberg, Staff Writer

“At the risk of sounding brutal, I’ve sometimes compared this year and the pandemic to the slowest moving car accident in history,” psychologist Dr. Ian Pervil said. “It’s very hard to step back and see the damage that has been done to everyone’s mental health because we’re still in the middle of it.”

From isolation to unprecedented safety concerns, COVID-19 has taken a toll on everyone’s mental health, psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Westphal said. “People who were doing ‘well’ before the pandemic are now okay,’ and people who were struggling before the pandemic are now really struggling,” she said. “It’s bumped everyone’s mental health down a notch.” 

As a result, the Department of Counseling and Guidance has been busier than ever, despite its virtual format during HM Online 2.0. In a recent Record poll, 26 out of the 163 student respondents said that they started therapy during the pandemic. 

For many students, the pandemic compounded existing mental health struggles. Ethan Waggoner (11) had surgery right before the pandemic began, so he spent his recovery in isolation, he said. “COVID slowed down my recovery exponentially, which caused a lack of progress that was really frustrating and depressing,” he said. “The pandemic just made all my personal issues, like my recovery, a million times worse.”

During quarantine, most people had to adapt to new forms of living, Pervil said. “These environmental changes then brought with them a great upheaval of the usual conventions and structures that offer stability, like waking up in the morning and going to school,” he said. “This dramatic reshuffling of norms forced people to find new routines, which for many, meant adopting a much lonelier or more isolated way of life. This change can be a shift that is deeply stress-producing.”

The pandemic compromised some of the elements of Maya Nornberg’s (11) life that made her happy, she said. “The pandemic took away a part of my life that gave me motivation and happiness every day, which was being able to go to school, see friends, or even just have a basic routine,” she said. “My mom is also really scared of diseases, so the pandemic definitely affected our ability to wake up in the morning and feel as secure.” 

“How can someone talk about your family life when your family is next door? How can you talk about your schoolwork when you’re sitting at your work desk? It’s just not as appealing because you don’t have that sense of distance.”

– Dr. Elizabeth Westphal

Quarantining because of the pandemic has also resulted in the loss of friends, Piper Wallace (11) said. “The pandemic can make you fall out of contact with people or feel like no one wants to hang out with you anymore, which is really depressing at times.” 

After losing two family members to COVID-19, Wallace also found it demoralizing to see friends not adhere to pandemic protocol seriously, she said. “There are people that I no longer want to hang out with because I saw them not take the pandemic seriously. It was hard to forgive [these people] after it [COVID] killed two people close to me. ”

Consequently, COVID has made Wallace feel “incredibly alone” at times, she said. “I didn’t go into the pandemic with a solid friend group and I then experienced those two deaths, [so] I just really wanted to have someone there and not feel like I was burdening anyone with my struggles.”

The pandemic has compromised many support systems that students rely on throughout the year, Westphal said. For example, students often turned to their friends for help before going to Counseling and Guidance, and during the pandemic this option was less accessible, she said. 

Due to extended periods of online school, many students have struggled to maintain a sleep schedule. Out of the 163 responses in a recent Record poll, 96 students said that the pandemic disrupted their sleep schedule. 

Oftentimes these abnormal sleep schedules come at the detriment to students’ mental health, Westphal said. “The structure of in-person school is very anchoring and stabilizing for students and faculty alike,” she said. “The lack of structure makes people much less efficient with their school work, and also messes up their sleeping and eating habits. When people’s sleeping habits become out-of-whack, that definitely knocks down their physical and mental health.”

Tomoko Hida (11), who has spent the year living abroad, has struggled to maintain healthy sleep and eating habits due to the pandemic and the time difference, she said. “I shift my sleep schedule from sleeping before school to sleeping right after school, and sometimes I break up my eight hours into four hours and four hours,” she said. “Because of that, I’m either awake for two days at a time, or accidentally I’ll eat five meals in a day without realizing it.” 

As a result, Hida has experienced weight gain over the course of the year, she said.

Waggoner has also experienced weight gain due to a lack of motivation, he said. “I’ve struggled a lot with staying motivated to exercise or even just get out of bed,” he said. “There are days where I feel so unmotivated to do anything, so I just sit in bed and watch TV as the day flies by.”

Because the pandemic compounded mental health struggles, therapy has played a more prominent role than ever, Westphal said. During the pandemic, the majority of therapy has shifted to a virtual format. At the school, Counseling and Guidance sent out emails to the student body with the link to a Google Form through which students could schedule virtual meetings. 

Despite having more scheduled meetings than ever before, Counseling and Guidance had fewer “drop-ins,” or unscheduled meetings with students during virtual school, Westphal said. “I think there were a lot of students who really could have used our support, who might have stopped in, but were stopped by needing to find the link or the Google form,” she said.

Having to hold virtual meetings with Counseling and Guidance from students’ homes also likely decreased the number of sessions online, Westphal said. “When students come into Counseling and Guidance, they’re looking for a space that is removed from their daily lives,” she said. “How can someone talk about your family life when your family is next door? How can you talk about your schoolwork when you’re sitting at your work desk? It’s just not as appealing because you don’t have that sense of distance.”

It is likely that students chose not to schedule a counseling session at all because of a lack of privacy, Westphal said. “I imagine that there were students that did not reach out to us because they felt that they had no place to talk to us.”

Quinn (11)*, who chose to be anonymous because she did not want her peers to think differently of her on behalf of her struggles with mental health, said that she felt like each session of virtual therapy was a waste. “I felt like I couldn’t talk as much because my parents were right outside my door,” she said. “They’re going to listen, especially if I’m talking about them. I felt like I lost the freedom and agency I had when I spoke with my therapist in-person.”

Because of these obstacles of online school, the department had to become more inventive to continue to supply support for students, Pervil said. “Major societal events, like pandemics, have a way of opening our eyes to a fuller range of human experiences,” Pervil said. “For every student with whom it was easier to meet online, there was a corresponding student with whom it was harder. This newfound knowledge made me sort of more aware of the range of ways we may be able to reach out to students and help them. If we are willing to break outside of our traditional mold, we may then be able to reach more people in different ways.”

However, counseling students in their own homes created a less formal atmosphere, which was sometimes beneficial, Upper Division Director of Counseling and Guidance Dr. Daniel Rothstein said. “Sometimes you get a glimpse of someone’s cat or you get to know their pet, and in these moments there was something nice.” 

During online learning, Westphal has focused on reaching out to students who are struggling, she said. “A lot of what I did on Zoom during the pandemic was work with some of our really most fragile vulnerable students,” she said. These were students who were struggling before the pandemic to engage with their school work, feel good about their relationships with their peers, or feel capable of being part of the school’s community, she said. “These students were most devastated by the pandemic. This trend cut across all grades, grade levels, gender, socio economic status, and race,” she said. 

One of the main focuses of the administration and Counseling and Guidance during the pandemic has been to reach out to students who are struggling, Dean of Students Michael Dalo said. “The deans have been especially attentive to students that we have been concerned about,” he said. “The deans have been more proactive to connect with these students and make sure that they can connect with a trusted adult.” 

Quinn, who goes to Counseling and Guidance almost every week, said that she did not schedule a meeting once during the virtual period. “I didn’t feel inclined to go during quarantine because I got super depressed,” she said. “I didn’t care enough to ask for some help because I just didn’t want to leave my bed. It just felt like too much effort, especially because I wouldn’t even be able to speak freely with my parents nearby.”

There are more distractions during virtual therapy, Wallace said. “I’m definitely guilty of multitasking while on the phone with my therapist, whether it be doing my nails or scrolling on Instagram,” she said. “It’s only harming myself because they’re there to help me, but at certain times it’s really hard to sit down and have a productive session. There are times when I just don’t feel like talking and opening up, and online, it’s easier to do that.” 

On the other hand, having counseling sessions from her bedroom during the online period has made Westphal more focused, she said. At school, Westphal’s duties include counseling with students, crisis management, and the Horace Mann Orientation (HMO) program, she said. 

“Being at home was like a dream, because I was sitting in a corner of my room, facing a computer, and no one was going to walk by or knock on the door,” she said. “I was more engaged with the counseling work that I was doing.”

For Tess Goldberg, (10) the virtual format has made therapy more accessible, she said. “I no longer have to wake up an hour before to get ready and commute,” she said. “My therapist is also on her computer more often, so she’s always checking her email and available to talk now.” 

To facilitate his recovery process, Waggoner began meeting with a sports psychologist via Zoom, he said. “I honestly didn’t find it that helpful, which might have been because of the therapist or maybe the virtual setting,” he said. “It became very repetitive and it felt like all she could do over Zoom was tell me, ‘Wow, I’m sorry.’”

Westphal also found that there was added difficulty connecting with and counseling people via Zoom, she said. “There’s a whole host of nonverbal stuff that is going on that you miss, like a person’s posture or how they’re sitting,” she said. “Sometimes there’s a feeling in the room when you’re sitting with a student, which you just don’t get on Zoom.”

At the same time, virtual therapy has also opened new avenues for discourse and connection. On days where Hida finds it too difficult to talk out loud, she has been able to use the chat function on Zoom to type out her feelings, she said. 

Throughout the pandemic, Wallace has not visited Counseling and Guidance, she said. “I have definitely fallen victim to the whole stigma surrounding Counseling and Guidance,” she said. “I feel like people feel the need to tiptoe around you if you go to guidance because they will think that you are always on the verge of a breakdown. I also try to put my best foot forward at school, and sometimes that means doing everything I can to make it seem like I am okay, even if I’m not.”

The pandemic has inspired Goldberg to be more active on social media, where she tries to destigmatize mental health issues, she said. Before the pandemic, she worried about judgment she could receive from her peers if she were more vocal about her passions. During the pandemic, however, she has gained confidence and began using her Instagram platform to raise awareness about mental health and prompt discourse over the subject, she said. 

The pandemic has also resulted in more prominent sensations of “burnout” at the end of the school year. “I feel like school is giving the same level of intensity work-wise as a normal year,” Goldberg said. “After a year that has been very difficult for everybody, I think people have reached a point where they can’t keep up anymore.”

Because of the negative impacts of the pandemic on mental health, Dalo decided to use the quarantine as an opportunity to invest himself in self-care, he said. “I generally don’t do well when we’re remote, so it forced me to find strategies to make sure that I was taking care of myself,” he said. “I’ve gained an appreciation for outdoor space that I didn’t have before, which has had a really positive impact on my mental state.”

Goldberg has also increased her self-care efforts, she said. This year, she has prioritized her well being over her school work, she said. “Normally I would tell myself, ‘You’ve got to finish these assignments and then you can go to sleep,’ but this year I have learned that while there are consequences to not finishing homework, the consequences of pushing yourself too hard are much bigger.”

Quinn worked on her ability to feel comfortable being alone, she said. “COVID made me really comfortable being by myself,” she said. “I used to feel really sad if I didn’t go out one weekend, but now I actually enjoy staying in. I’m definitely more introverted now.”