As the first semester of the school year comes to a close, Hawaii’s high school students are struggling to stay focused while dealing with new mental health challenges.
“It’s been challenging, with the continuous degrading of my motivation it’s been really hard trying to get back on the mindset and realization that it is finals,” said Erwin Laroco, a junior at McKinley High School.
While the pandemic has affected everyone, there are aspects that uniquely impact teenagers, said Dr. Lindsey Weiler, a family therapist and mental health expert at the University of Minnesota.
“This time in development is where you have a natural shift away from family and to peers. Now they’re being forced back into their family,” she said.
Combined with lack of sleep and unrelenting academic pressures, Weiler said we’re in a “perfect storm” of negative mental health impacts on teenagers.
Earlier this year, Civil Beat gave audio recorders to nine teenagers across Oahu. While their audio diaries revealed Generation Z’s unique resilience, they also showed how the pandemic has had significant impacts on high schoolers’ mental health.
Across the country, emergency rooms are seeing an increased number of young people experiencing mental health crises. Mental health-related emergency room visits for Americans between 12 and 17 years old are up 31% from 2019.
“We know that the need for services is on the rise,” said Kumi Macdonald, the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s Hawaii chapter.
Macdonald said anecdotal evidence from mental health professionals she works with is that existing mental illnesses are worsening.
“So maybe they were mildly depressed or mildly struggling with anxiety but because they have sports, they have clubs, they can see their friends so they can manage,” she said. “But when you take all these coping skills away it’s more intense.”
While loneliness affects all age groups, teenagers may feel the effects more strongly. The Society for Research in Child Development found that having close friends during middle and high school leads to better mental health and self-worth well into adulthood.
But being forced to connect solely through screens doesn’t feel the same to 16-year-old Qing Chou.
Because her father has health issues that put him at higher risk for complications from COVID-19, her family has to take extra precautions. Whenever she can, Chou will find a quiet spot in her family’s small apartment to video chat or play World of Warcraft with friends, but 10 months into a pandemic she feels more isolated than ever.
“Not seeing your friends for a long time is just really lonely,” she said.
Weiler said a lack of motivation, difficulty concentrating, irritability, headaches, and sleep deprivation are natural reactions to the stress of an ongoing pandemic.
Anxiety is a one-two punch to sleep deprivation: it can make it difficult to fall asleep, but late nights can also worsen symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Erwin Laroco, a junior at McKinley High School, has missed or been late to a couple of online classes because he keeps falling asleep in the middle of the day.
In August Civil Beat gave audio recorders to nine teenagers across Oahu to capture their thoughts, experiences and struggles throughout 2020. Many of the audio diaries focused on how they were adapting to new mental health challenges. Read more about their experiences here.
The 16-year-old sleeps in the living room because he lives in a two-bedroom apartment with his parents, two younger siblings, an aunt and uncle and a young cousin.
“Being the bigger sibling I decided to step up and be the one to sleep in the living room,” he said.
It’s hard for him to focus on school work during the day because his siblings make a lot of noise or need his attention while the adults in his life are at work.
So he waits until the rest of the household goes to sleep before he’s able to start his homework. It means he’s often awake until 2 or 3 a.m., and is then woken up a few hours later when the adults start getting ready for work and the children in the house wake up.
“It has been mentally degrading,” he said. “Throughout the day I get tired and stressed easily and when I get stressed, I also stress eat and that has made me more self-conscious about my body.”
While preparing for last year’s finals amid the new pandemic was difficult, completing an entire semester mostly online requires resilience and mental grit.
Spending all day in front of a screen for online school is mentally and physically draining said 17-year-old Emily Tom. Having to then spend hours more at the same desk to complete homework assignments and study for standardized tests sometimes feels unbearable.
Many teenagers use extracurriculars and sports to round out college applications, but with so many activities canceled, there’s an added focus on grades and test scores during a time when it’s harder than ever to focus.
Connor Arakaki, a senior at Iolani High School, took the SAT on Nov. 7. Staying focused on vocabulary words amid the election took a lot of discipline. Now she’s trying to ignore COVID-19 case numbers while studying for finals.
“Everything that’s happening has compounded the pressure I felt before corona,” she said.
In an email statement, the Hawaii Department of Education’s Office of Student Support Services said it encourages teachers to give their students screen breaks.
“Wellness and social emotional activities that promote electronic down-time and self-care are available to school staff to incorporate into daily lessons and direct services,” Krislyn Yano, a spokeswoman for the DOE, wrote.
“Everything that’s happening has compounded the pressure I felt before corona.” – Connor Arakaki, 17
However, there are worries that lightening workloads to prioritize student mental health risks students falling behind academically.
Many education experts are recommending that teachers accept all late work and pass/fail grading systems. But Tom’s teachers have continued as normal.
On her first day of school, one of her teachers warned the class over Zoom that they signed up for the hardest course the school offers. Another said that expectations and the course load weren’t going to change.
“He’s a really good teacher so I’m excited for the class but I’m also very afraid,” she said at the start of the semester. “It’s hard to focus when we’re all stressed out because the world is falling apart.”
Because family units are physically closer during the pandemic, Weiler said teenagers’ stress levels will really be influenced by the adults in their lives.
“How kids experience and are affected by the pandemic is going to be largely influenced by how their family and community are affected,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean we should hide the truth from our children.”
“It’s hard to focus when we’re all stressed out because the world is falling apart.” – Emily Tom, 17
Weiler recommends adults talk openly to their teenagers about the frustrations and challenges the pandemic has presented, and then listen without judgment or making comparisons. Putting yourself in their shoes can go a long way, she said, and it can’t hurt to give them extra space or freedom when it’s safe to do so.
“Responding with grace and empathetically listening to any challenges our friends, family and young people are facing is the way we’re going to get through this,” said Weiler.
Alex Nastase, a 19-year-old from Kailua, found that taking long drives and talking with his mom were great ways to relieve stress during lockdown. Christian Cristobal, 17, grew to appreciate simple dinners with her parents where they could decompress, eat ramen and talk about their experiences.
“I can say that this pandemic has taken a lot, has taken a toll on me, but I can say it has given a lot to me as well,” Cristobal said.
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