The Pandemic’s Toll on Mental Health

On this blog, twitter, and my newsletter, I’ve been writing fairly consistently that certain groups are faring particularly badly during this pandemic.

And we’re living it. We’re in the midst of a re-evaluation of Ian and setting up plans for him after he finishes high school this June. All sorts of professionals — school administrators and private experts — have popped the hood on my kid and looked around. We decided that before he goes to college, he needs to spend a year or two in a public school transition program, where they’ll work on his social skills so he won’t get booted out of a college calculus class for being too annoying.

In our conversations with all the professionals, everyone said that this year has been a disaster for a kid who doesn’t blend in with mainstream kids. Ian hit a developmental brick wall, because he’s been locked in a bedroom for months and months.

It’s not just the special ed community that regressed. My friends tell me about their college kids and family members, who shut themselves up in rooms back in March and aren’t coming out. While these individuals aren’t formally on the spectrum, they have social anxiety or just ordinary shyness. Their social skills are rusty, and now, they’re too afraid to leave their bedroom sanctuaries.

We’re going to have to clean up some serious mental health issues when this is all said and done.

My hope is that we put aside resources for the groups that have suffered the most. So, that means free, additional tutoring, therapy, and mental health support for low-income, or young or special needs students. I would also like to see financial support for local town recreation programs and libraries to organize clubs, meetings, and social gatherings.

We’ve been bowling alone for a year, and it’s just not healthy.

18 thoughts on “The Pandemic’s Toll on Mental Health

  1. One of the cool things our school did for kids struggling with social connections after lockdown, was to organize some school tramps (that’s hikes for those of you struggling with the Kiwi idiom). Deliberately mixing up those kids who were looking isolated, with kids who excelled in social networking (in person, rather than necessarily online). They took the same group of kids out on 3 day tramps over 3 weeks (2 during school time, one on the weekend) – and to different locations (bush [forest to you guys], seashore & island). I gather that it was successful, helping kids to get out and be active, and to forge some social connections. And was much envied by those kids who didn’t get to go (making the trampers part of the cool ‘in’ crowd).


    1. That sounds wonderful. Our district was supposed to organize “outdoor education”, but put the full onus of planning on the teachers and then applied a bureaucratic approval process that resulted in only 5 programs being proposed to the potential pilot stage (in a district of 50K kids). The music program at my child’s school purportedly tried to design a program but was denied (partially on the grounds that high school students wouldn’t follow the rules, which was condescending.)


      1. The NZ program does sound nice.

        bj wrote, “partially on the grounds that high school students wouldn’t follow the rules, which was condescending.”

        And dumb, too. If kids are refusing to follow the rules, you can boot them out, which would be a really heavy punishment in the current environment.


  2. We’re an upper middle class family with no issues like job or food insecurity, and we are drowning in mental health problems right now. Both of our kids are suffering from severe anxiety and maybe depression. We’re lucky – they’re both in therapy and/or on meds. But I am so, so worried for the kids who don’t have parents who aren’t or cannot be on top of this. I saw data in the WaPo that 70% of young adults have either one indicator of mental illness or substance abuse. It’s a shit show.


  3. Our school district released their “pulse” survey taken in mid-October this week. Among high school students, only 25% had an favorable opinion of remote learning, answering “unfavorable” to “Overall, how do you feel about remote learning this fall?”. They had unfavorable opinions of remote learning while simultaneously saying that their schools were good climates (80% favorable). And, the students had a higher unfavorable rating than families (25% v 50%). When I reported the results to my kiddo, he said “that many?!!!”. My conclusion is that even the kids who seem to be mostly doing OK (like mine) are not.


  4. “We’re going to have to clean up some serious mental health issues when this is all said and done.”

    One of our local high-schools (not ours, Thank God) – has had 3 suicides over the last couple of months (2 in the early teen age range, and one in the school leaver range).
    It’s not being publicised (newspaper reports of suicides seem to trigger more of them) – and I only heard about it from someone who’s involved from the mental health side.
    But this is *after* we’ve been out of lockdown and ‘back to normal’ (whatever normal is) for nearly 6 months.
    The mental health impact of this whole Covid lockdown situation seems to just get worse.

    I’m hearing through the grapevine – that mental health referrals for youth (and adults for that matter) are through the roof, and services are overwhelmed and not able to cope. Appointments are now months out (not just weeks) – and beds in mental health facilities (e.g. suicidal or anorexic teens) are simply not available.

    Our govt has not added any more support in this area (to be fair, it’s difficult to see where the additional support could come from – mental health professionals aren’t just hanging around waiting for employment – they’re in short supply).
    But there is rather an assumption that we’re back to ‘normal’ and you should all just bounce back.


  5. Kids got their “giving” money for Hanukkah yesterday. One chose a nearby shelter & wikipedia as his gifts. The other said she’ll send money via Go Fund Me. I heard the CEO of Go Fund Me on Marketplace the other day, where Rysdal asked whether that’s our current safety net, and the CEO tried to walk the line of playing up his business while avoiding the idea that the enterprise has become what consists of the American safety net.

    One of the things that strikes me is the ways in which the American model + the pandemic (and probably, not just the American model) is widening the difference between haves and have nots (and not just economically). Those with better mental health, better social skills,. . . fewer caretaking responsibilities, and, yes, more money are succeeding and maybe, occasionally, thriving. Others are suffering and some are getting by.

    We are going to have to push very hard for compensatory services, even the most basic, like libraries and rec centers. Local governments won’t have money and some people (the ones with money and knowledge) will have figured out their own individual solutions.


  6. Is the pandemic responsible for all the problematic mental health issues? I’m anxious about many things and the pandemic is only in the top five because my mom is in a nursing home.


    1. MH said, “Is the pandemic responsible for all the problematic mental health issues?”

      It creates obstacles to a lot of normal, healthy coping strategies.

      For example, let’s say that you’re very stressed, and your normal outlet is the gym. If your gym is closed, then that’s one less way to cope.

      We have a very energetic 8-year-old that we would normally take to indoor play places (trampoline park, indoor gyms, etc.) on the weekend or during long school breaks. During the pandemic, we don’t/shouldn’t do that anymore, even though the places are now open locally. She climbs a rope in our backyard and climbs one of our doorways (she’s got this whole routine she does) and she does the doorway climbing OVER AND OVER, in a particular order, and she “has” to do it in a certain specific order, and she “can’t” stop in the middle of it.

      Also, certain aspects of COVID hygiene (don’t touch things! wash hands! wash hands again! wear a mask! don’t go close to people! don’t hug grandma!) are going to feed anxiety and compulsion in anybody with those tendencies.


  7. I know two kids who have been suicidal during the shutdowns – both only kids, both girls, both getting help because their families have resources. It’s so tough. While I don’t know what all the factors were, from the outside I would say social media contributed because when your contact with people is all online/facetime, you really are comparing your inner “blooper reel” to people’s outer top clips.

    I 100% agree that remedial programs in all kinds of areas are going to need to be funded – here there is a lot of talk of funding infrastructure projects as a way to start-kick the economy. I hope that all of us can agitate for and win “human infrastructure” projects under the same umbrella.


  8. I think the picture is going to be complicated. Suicide rates went down during the Great Depression, so the rates don’t always track the way we might assume. Here are some resources the highlight the complexities:

    One of my children has had fairly serious mental health issues since middle school, which we were told might be bipolar 2, though they wouldn’t diagnose her until she was an adult. Now that she’s an adult that still seems to be the likely diagnosis. It’s highly genetic, and my husband probably has it, though when he was young it was diagnosed as depression. In any case, we’re talking about more than the typical adolescent mental health problem. I know this is one data point, but she’s done very well since covid–much better than the year before covid–as has my husband. School is not good for everyone–some people do better when its pressures are removed. Our school district caused so much stress, not only in my daughter, but among her peers–I can’t tell you how many kids I know over the years who had depression and anxiety, who couldn’t attend school, who were cutting themselves or being sent to partial. About five years ago a middle schooler at a private school nearby shot himself in the yard during a snowstorm and wasn’t found for days–they thought he’d run away–because of an assignment he hadn’t handed in. Because of an assignment!

    There is a benefit in the removal of some of the academic pressures and the endless petty busywork that the modern school uses to prove its value–the constant competition and trying to prove onself and the focus on getting into college–and the constant daily go-go-go that is so difficult for adolescents who need sleep and are miserable they have to catch a bus at 7:15 (some think bipolar is a disease of the circadian rhythm system BTW), or for kids who just like to read or do art or music and never have time because of endless commitments. The world as it was before Covid is not exactly ideal for everyone. Some people do better when their family members are home, and do worse in modern peer-focused society. I know I’m immensely privileged to be able to say this, but other than anxiety about getting sick, and worry about my father and mother-in-law and older friends and family and older people across the world, I’ve had a pretty good year. Some of us are just homebodies.


    1. I think that is a really good point – my eldest child has thrived on less school, and it’s become really clear to me how much our extroverted high school structure was burning him out.


      1. I have heard from friends of some children who are happier with distance learning. I would likely have enjoyed it, being an introvert by nature.

        I think school is more grueling than it used to be, due to social media rendering teenaged social interaction ubiquitous. Back in the day, once I got off the bus, it was left behind. I had space to disconnect, do homework, hobbies, and recover. Now, you can never disconnect. So, for some, removing the in-person part of the equation may provide some relief.


  9. I should add that it was always a scramble to get her to therapy appointments, between our jobs and obligations to other kids. It’s so easy now, and she never misses appointments because she’s too depressed to get out of bed and go. Her access to mental health services has actually improved. I have no idea why this wasn’t an option a long time ago.


    1. lisasg2 said, “Her access to mental health services has actually improved. I have no idea why this wasn’t an option a long time ago.”

      I believe there’s been a pandemic-era expansion of telemedicine options, which can be really helpful. If your problem involves not being able to drag yourself out of bed, not having to get to an appointment removes an obstacle to getting help.


  10. I think interventions that worked for particular people (teletherapy) should definitely stay. And, we should recognize school that works better (with fewer peers? fewer demands? fewer hours? What is it that worked?) for the children for whom we’ve seen remote learning work.

    My college kid has found such positives in her remote experience. My HS kid thinks remote is a very poor substitute (though he is really doing OK in terms of learning and even social interaction) and is very angry that the adults in charge are doing nothing to make in person school operate.


    1. I don’t think the federal push to consolidate school districts was a good thing. I favor smaller schools. Past a certain size, it seems to me that it becomes overwhelming for many students. I have read arguments in favor that point out that larger schools can support specialized programs, such as orchestras and sports teams. On the other side, though, is the expense of busing children long distances. As we can see in this vast stay-at-home experiment, spending lots of time commuting is also a cost. And, it seems to me that the welfare of many quieter students is sacrificed to support a few “stars.”

      Some promises made in consolidating districts were not kept:

      It would seem to me that distance education through computers offers a good way to diversify courses offered to students, without needing 2 hour daily commutes. Administration costs could be decreased through the use of computers. Some costs should not be minimized, such as the need for a nurse on campus.


Comments are closed.