Tips

Navigating a Return to Post-COVID Normal: Tips for Youth Mental Health


written by Cecilia Pang - Jun 28, 2021
medically reviewed by Dr. Christine Bishara, MD - ,

A look at how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected adolescents and what this means as Canadian provinces progress through their re-opening plans.

A little over a year ago, pandemic closures began. Since then, Canadian provinces and territories have adapted health measures as well as restrictions tailored to their unique contexts. As of early June this year, Canada was averaging 2,450 positive COVID-19 cases a day over the past seven days – a decline of more than 5,400 daily average cases from the month prior. And as of mid-June, more than 90.8% of COVID-19 vaccine doses delivered to the provinces have been administered including 65.4% of the Canadian population having received at least one dose and 15.5% fully vaccinated. With the curve continuing to flatten across Canada, many provinces and territories have released their plans for a reopening path towards a post pandemic ‘normal.’

But what exactly will this new normal look like? While it is clear with the provincial plans moving forward what restrictions will exist or not, the research and recent data suggest that the journey for many, especially adolescents will be difficult to navigate. In particular, the increasing rates of adolescents experiencing persistent sadness or hopelessness have been on the upward trend since the early 2010s as a study by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports. With this in mind, the effects of the pandemic on mental health for adolescents are concerning as literature demonstrates how trauma can have immediate and long term impacts even long after the traumatic events have passed. For adolescents still navigating developmental changes through puberty and constructing their own worldviews, a traumatic event such as the pandemic has limited many of the very activities conducive to their mental health.

Recent studies examining youth mental health found that the pandemic can and does exacerbate youth’s worries, irritabilities, acting out, eating and sleeping changes, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While the severity and longevity of these symptoms are influenced by factors such as age, history of trauma, psychological history, presence or absence of social and economic supports, the added complexity of a pandemic are putting adolescents’ mental health at risk. Since the start of the pandemic, many have experienced various schooling models due to restrictions. Often times, sports and recreational activities for students outside school also had to be cancelled.

Many adolescents who were once lively and energized by the social interactions afforded to them at school and in extracurricular activities were quickly thrown into a situation that was often in flux –enhancing anxiety and isolation. Surveys done by the Mental Health Commission find that the biggest challenges affecting youth included isolation and loneliness, with nearly half of all respondents (49%) claiming that not being able to see their loved ones either through social gatherings or in school environments were particularly difficult. The other top challenge identified by a third of total respondents (33%) include school closures and adapting to virtual learning. Limited access to mental health support (9%) and fears of acquiring COVID-19 were also highlighted (2%).

For adolescents, who are already tackling hormonal fluctuations due to puberty and the stress of a transition into adulthood, the pandemic has uniquely posed a barrier to their accessing of support resources such as a trusted adult like their school teacher to talk to afterschool or other support groups such as friends or peers within their usual social activities. Having to navigate their studies isolated and potentially taking on the responsibilities of caring for their older family members amidst the usual challenges of growing up is not only a huge accomplishment but also an important intersection of challenging circumstances that cannot be ignored; especially, when considering a ramp up back to pre-COVID activities.

Recently, on June 17th, 2021, the Province of BC unveiled its back-to-school plan for the fall, which Provincial health Officer Dr. Henry and Education Minister Whiteside have termed as a process that will return BC residents back to a ‘near normal.’ While all provinces and territories have outlined their reopening plans through phases and projected dates, none have yet to declare what fall back-to-school plans may look like for children and high-schoolers just yet. With these impending plans, BC also plans to relax other current restrictions on gatherings so that extracurricular activities and sports can resume just in time for the new school year.

These are incredible developments not only for BC but also for other provinces in the process of developing their own plans to resume K-12 school to a more regular operation of education in the classroom. However, in this case, amidst all the anxiety that the past year has wrought for adolescents, the phases of reopening may be exciting yet also impose various fears. Therefore, it’s pertinent to acknowledge as we transition into the various stages of a re-opening plan, how to support adolescents or if we are adolescents ourselves, to acknowledge how we carry the lasting effects of the pandemic with us.

Tips on How to Better Navigate the Return to Post-COVID Normal

*While these tips are not necessarily specific to adolescents, they can be particularly helpful as adolescents begin to finish their schooling and think about the fall.

First, have a plan. Figuring out a plan and putting it into action can relieve anxiety. As Erica Sandoval, a licensed clinical social worker, says, “there are [going to be] a lot of different emotions due to the fact that you’re really not sure what [our lives are] going to be like…as the world is not the same.” Because the pandemic has added extra uncertainty to our lives, having SMART (smart, measurable, actionable, realistic, and timely) goals for how we plan to reintegrate into our social settings such as school, other responsibilities, or work can alleviate the extra stress during uncertain times. For instance, how will you get to school? Do you need to take the bus or do you need to set up pick up with other friends? Make a plan for emergencies too, now that other family members’ schedules may be shifting rapidly as offices reopen. Sit down with those in your immediate circle and craft out a plan and its plan B.

Second, set up a support group or system for building new relationships and fostering old ones. The past year has most likely trimmed off a lot of friendships for many and perhaps solidified existing relationships for others. Having people to talk to or those that identify with the specific contextual environment you find yourself in can be a comfort during hard times. Even resuming chats with neighbours or looking to get involved with extracurriculars and other outside activities can add a much-needed boost to our mental health and mental resiliency.

Third, create a routine. Having a sense of control over the details of our lives can be helpful in a time when things often feel like they’re shifting under our feet. Scheduling time for self-care activities or hobbies such as exercise, writing, listening to music and others you enjoy can give you a much grounded sense of self. Furthermore, having a manageable list of things you need to do in a given day such as finishing household chores or cleaning up can give great feelings of accomplishment.

Fourth, focus on the small victories. Adolescents can build their confidence by reflecting on the fact that they got through the past year. Pick out specific tasks or goals that you were able to accomplish during the pandemic – from completing a course to simply surviving a difficult term at school. Lythcott-Haims says, “try to offer yourself that reminder of what you did manage to do despite this tough time, because that memory, and doing the work of recalling it to memory, will help build that emotional resilience that will support you the next time something difficult happens.” Even the building of relationships with your parents and family members or living through the pandemic itself can be a meaningful pandemic accomplishment.

Fifth, ask for help when you need it. Asking for help takes immense courage and it is a key part of our personal growth. As Julie Lythcott-Haims, a former dean of freshman at Stanford University says, “asking for help is an opportunity to learn and grow.” As humans, we are social beings, and we are never meant to go at it alone. Seek a trusted friend or adult to confide in. And never hesitate to ask regardless of what it is because you never know until you ask. Whether that be help with an errand or a problem set from school you’re struggling with. Most of the people around us are more than willing to lend a hand to help a friend out. Additionally, youth related resources that provide help include Kids Help Phone, Wellness Together Canada, and organizations like BetterHelp. The Government of Canada has also put together a resource hub. Lastly, schools or universities also have various resources such as free counselling or support groups as well.

Navigating a Return to Post-COVID Normal: Tips for Youth Mental Health

In some cases, adolescents may require additional and professional help from a psychiatrist or psychologist who specializes in pediatric and adolescent mental health. Regularly talk to your child or teen and ask them how they feel. Look for signs of depression which include either insomnia or excessive sleeping, decreased or increased appetite, irritability or loss of interest in activities. Other signs include lack of concentration and thoughts of suicide. Professional help exists in the form of supportive counselling or cognitive behaviour therapy that can help manage symptoms from depression or PTSD. At times, adolescents may require help in the form of medication such as antidepressants for their symptoms. However, it’s important to note that in many cases, the risks of antidepressant medication can outweigh the benefits. All in all, when professional help is needed it is best to seek out your parent or guardian and to discuss options with your family doctor.

Sources

1. COVID-19 Vaccination Tracker.

2. Halpert, Madeline. 4 June 2021. “Why Leaving the Nest Is Harder the Second Time Around.” The New York Times.

3. Hertz Marci F., and Lisa Cohen Barrios. 2021. “Adolescent Mental Health, COVID-19, and the value of school-community partnerships.” BMJ Journals 27, (1): 85-86.

4. Kotyk, Alyse, and Regan Hasegawa. 17 June 2021. “Back to school: No cohorts, ‘near normal’ return to class for B.C. students in the fall.” CTV News.

5. Liu, Stephanie. 2 June 2021. “Where do provinces stand in their reopening plans?” CTV News.

6. “Lockdown Life: Mental Health Impacts of COVID-19 on Youth in Canada.” 2020. Mental Health Commission of Canada.

7. Tracey, Natasha. 14 June 2021. “Parents Killed by COVID-19 and the Grief of the 40,000 Kids Left Behind.” Canadian Pharmacy King.

Disclaimer: The purpose of the above content is to raise awareness only and does not advocate treatment or diagnosis. This information should not be substituted for your physician’s consultation, and it should not indicate that the use of drugs are safe and suitable for you. Seek professional medical advice and treatment if you have any questions or concerns.

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Cecilia Pang is driven by a curiosity and passion for how she and others can contribute sustainably and meaningfully to the world through collective action. Her interests have stemmed not only from her research as a political science student, but through activism and entrepreneurship in her community and from her accomplished background in the arts. Over the span of the past eight years, she has had the privilege of creating empowering spaces for youth civic engagement. From founding initiatives such as ajourney2success.com (2012) and Art2Heart Foundation (2014) to co-chairing YWCA Metro Vancouver’s Youth Advisory Council, she has been able to connect thousands of youths locally and globally and given youth opportunities to feel confident in their community involvement via authentic self-expression in arts and writing.


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