Qing Chou’s 2020 was defined by loneliness, anxiety and deep sadness about current events and all the high school milestones she was missing. She hated virtual learning, had a hard time concentrating and would stay up late at night worrying about current events and her parents’ unemployment.
But on a recent video call she was brimming with excitement; eager to share her good news.
“I’m one of the valedictorians for my school, I’m going to college next year and I have a school dance next week,” she said. “I’m so excited because I haven’t seen my friends in so long … it’s going to be really amazing.”
Chou credits her drastic shift to vaccinations, low COVID-19 numbers in the state and an acceptance of events that are outside of her control. But she said she’ll always carry the sadness and uncertainty of 2020 with her.
“I’ve been trying not to get my hopes up about things because I’ve learned that something crazy could always happen,” she said.
While teenage years are often tumultuous, the pandemic and other events of 2020 and 2021 have meant fewer highs and very low lows for Honolulu’s teenagers. Mental health experts in the state warn of burnout and anxiety. National conversations about race, hate crimes and policing have shaped how young people see themselves and the world around them.
But despite a lot of sadness and frustration, recent news about vaccinations and a return to in-person events have given teenagers hope.
Whether their 2021 has been better or worse than 2020, the confluence of events has fundamentally changed Hawaii’s next generation and given them a hard-won sense of resilience.
Despite increased vaccinations, changing guidance on masks and lower hospitalization rates, the United States is still actively in a pandemic, so researchers and other mental health experts don’t have robust data on how the pandemic has affected teenagers. But anecdotally, experts say that many young people in Hawaii are struggling more now than they were in 2020.
This is certainly the case for Erwin Laroco, a junior at McKinley High School. When he made audio diaries for Civil Beat last August he was motivated by the Black Lives Matter protests to consider a career in law or politics. He was active in student life and clubs and, despite sleepless nights, was completing all his school work.
“I used to be a student who was very on it but I get the feeling that I’ve been struggling more than I have ever been before,” he said. “There’s been a major decline in my motivation this semester.”
Laroco also has more than just school work on his plate. He’s been watching his siblings and other young family members while his parents, aunts and uncles work. His mom is a nursing assistant and was part of the first wave of people to be vaccinated in the state. Throughout the pandemic he’s been worried about her exposure to COVID-19, but he was also worried about possible side effects from the vaccine.
“Vaccinations were definitely a mixed emotion,” he said. “There was just so much that was unknown and then I kept seeing information — well I guess it was misinformation — online that it was confusing.”
Laroco’s mom didn’t have any side effects and as he learned more about the science of vaccines his anxiety waned. He’s now planning to get the shot as soon as he finishes his semester to try and make the most of the summer before senior year.
“I’m going to be looking for a job and then really spending the summer focusing on my mental health and mentally preparing for college,” he said.
On Thursday Civil Beat and the Center for Oral History will come together to reflect on the impact of the pandemic on Hawaii’s youth. Some of the teenagers from Civil Beat’s project will discuss where life has taken them since then and we’ll watch some of the interviews from the Center for Oral History’s project. RSVP here.
Kumi Macdonald, the executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s Hawaii chapter, said her organization saw a definite increase in calls from parents whose teenagers were experiencing a mental health crisis for the first time in 2021.
Macdonald attributes this to two factors: burnout and transition. Continued uncertainty into a new school semester could have been too much for students who were holding it together well through 2020.
“As soon as January and February hit us, we’re all of a sudden super overwhelmed with people in direct crisis,” said Anisa Wiseman, NAMI Hawaii’s program director who runs a number of peer support groups that recently helped young people navigate suicidal ideation, medical anxiety and family trauma.
And although many teenagers who spoke to Civil Beat expressed excitement about vaccinations, in-person learning and summer opportunities, there was an undercurrent of anxiety.
“This sounds so stupid but I’ve had nightmares about being in a crowd and just being around a big amount of people,” said Emily Tom, a senior at Iolani High School.
She was nervous when her school announced it would be returning to in-person classes. But her fears were eased when she saw how strict the school was about masks and social distancing.
“We’ve had a few positive cases but the school immediately forces you to quarantine and so we haven’t had an outbreak,” she said. “I’m really glad about that because they take it so seriously.”
But the school’s vigilance did introduce new fears. Tom’s parents are both flight attendants and when they returned to work she was not only worried about their health but the possibility of spreading the virus.
“If anyone is going to get the virus first and cause an outbreak, it’s going to be someone who is around people who are constantly traveling,” she said. “I was definitely anxious because of how quickly it can spread and I didn’t want to be blamed for that.”
Macdonld and Wiseman of NAMI Hawaii said Tom’s nerves are completely normal. Just like the transition to isolation, mask-wearing and virtual school was difficult, people of all ages might find it hard to go ‘back to normal.’
“There’s a lot of challenges ahead, even though it seems hopeful overall, I think we’re all going to experience some level of anxiety,” Macdonld said. “It could also bring back a lot of feelings we maybe didn’t process at the beginning of the pandemic because we were in crisis-mode.”
There’s also the reality that for many families, life will never go “back to normal.” Over 400 Hawaii residents have died from COVID-19 and more than 2,000 have been hospitalized.
To help young people deal with this grief, and the other struggles of the past year, NAMI Hawaii is hosting a series of virtual events with high schools across the state. After the first presentation on depression, boundaries and mental wellness, Wiseman received over 250 anonymous questions.
“‘What if I feel down all the time? How do you enforce boundaries with others? How should you go about asking for mental health support from people who don’t take the topic of mental health seriously? What should you do if you don’t feel like speaking to anyone else when you’re in a time of trouble?’” she said, reading from the submission form. “Oh I’m going to have to add this one: ‘What do we do if it’s too hard to bear?’”
“We should all be aware that these are the struggles and questions our teenagers are thinking about,” she said. “It’s not easy stuff.”
The hard question on the forefront of high school junior Takara Tasaki-Ardren’s mind is where she fits in.
“There’s anti-Asianness in the Black community and anti-Blackness in Hawaii,” she said. “My mom is Black and my dad is half white and half-Japanese … so it’s been something I’ve been talking a lot about with my relatives.”
The Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate movements have had a profound impact on Tasaki-Ardren, whose uncle is a member of the Honolulu Police Department. She’s spent a lot of time reading the news, talking with her family and trying to figure out where she stands on social issues like police reform, tourism and Hawaii’s colonial history.
“Movements in the last few years have made me realize the struggles of just being a person of color,” she said. “It’s made me want to know more about my own relatives because while I learned about slavery in school I don’t know a lot about Japan and in school I’m just now learning about Hawaii’s history and relationship with the United States government.”
Every generation is heavily influenced by world events that happened in their youth. For example, the generation that came of age during the Great Depression tended to favor social welfare programs for the rest of their lives. Generation X, whose adolescent years were defined by relative prosperity and peace, are not particularly politically active.
Most members of Generation Z are too young to vote so the impacts of the pandemic, economic uncertainty and national politics on their trajectory of their lives will fully come to life over the next few decades.
Tasaki-Ardren said the events of the past two years have made her, and many of her peers, realize that if they don’t speak up their futures will be out of their hands.
“As campy as it probably sounds, being a teenager right now means that the future is on us and we have to rise up and try to take responsibility,” she said. “Last year I tried to ignore stuff but in 2021 I realized that I need to be more active.”
2021 has also been a transformative year for Connor Arakaki. She joined her school’s diversity, equity and inclusion alliance and helped shape school curriculum.
“I’m Asian American, I’m Native Hawaiian and I’ve realized that I should be more active in all of these issues,” she said. “It’s been really rewarding.”
Her junior year at Iolani was also her best academic year yet because she finally learned to manage her anxiety and deal with the intense academic pressure that used to keep her up at night.
“I have learned that sometimes I need to just give myself a break and a grace period,” she said. “I don’t have to be doing everything and sometimes it’s OK to be doing less than others.”
These realizations have let her focus on her passions, like the diversity alliance, speech and debate and an extracurricular English class, which she loved so much it changed her entire career path.
“I always said that I wanted to do a STEM program and I realized that I forced myself into a box,” she said. “For the first time I’m doing something that I want to do instead of what other people think I should do. And I think the events of 2020 have a lot to do with that.”
Last year has also changed how Suhaila Ng learns. When Punahou gave their students the option to return to class at the beginning of the semester, Ng chose to finish her junior year virtually so she had more time for an internship, two volunteer positions at the Bishop Museum, a part-time job and a myriad of clubs and student groups.
“The flexibility that comes with online has been a definite upside,” she said. “But it does make it easier to neglect my schoolwork and I’ve gotten the worst grades of my entire high school career. So that’s not great.”
Ng knows it will be hard to transition back to in-person learning where she’s expected to sit in a classroom and adhere to someone else’s schedule. Even though her grades have suffered this year, she’s actually more confident in her intellectual abilities because she’s dedicated countless hours to her passion for plants.
“I absolutely love botany and have learned so much from the Bishop Museum,” she said. “Even though 2020 was bad I would have never been able to take this internship or volunteer in the seed library or spend this much time in nature.”
Ng had low moments but is choosing to focus on the positives. Many of the teenagers said they worry about being seen as ungrateful or immature if they complain about their mental health, virtual school or other struggles too much.
They’re hyper-aware that there’s always someone, somewhere, who has it worse. They also said that their generation is incredibly resilient. They’ve lived their entire lives with the fear of climate change and school shootings hanging over their heads. Many said they’ve privately mourned the loss of a “typical” high school experience, but are happy that it’s something their entire generation went through together.
And after a hard year, they said genuine moments of teenage joy deserve to be celebrated. Because who knows what’s around the corner.
Qing Chou had an amazing time at her senior prom and is volunteering at her school’s vaccine clinic in the upcoming weeks.
Erwin Laraco, who was struggling through a really bad breakup at the beginning of the pandemic, is in a new “exciting, healthy and stable” relationship.
Emily Tom is partially vaccinated and looking forward to working at her school’s library and catching up on lost time with friends.
Takara Tasaki-Ardren was named the editor-in-chief of her school literary magazine in January and is working on a novel.
Connor Arakaki qualified for the National Speech and Debate tournament, a huge achievement that once felt like a long shot.
And the pandemic has given Christian Cristobal, a senior at Mid-Pacific Institute, the opportunity to focus on filmmaking. Her movie is scheduled to premiere on Olelo this July.
At the beginning of the school year, Cristobal wrote herself a letter, which she recently opened as she prepared for graduation.
“It says ‘It’s going to be a challenging year … God never said life would be easy or fair but you are one who embraces challenge,’” she said. “‘So keep going and find a different perspective.’”
“I am proud of myself because I think I have done that,” she said. “A lot of people my age have had to jump into the deep end of the challenge and we’re stronger for it.”
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