Before the COVID-19 pandemic sequestered Bridget Donovan to her room, where an endless stream of Zoom classes and isolation awaited her, the 18-year-old Framingham High School senior had a life.
“I don't skate anymore, I don't do theater, I don't really see my friends as much,” said Donovan, who is sharing her senior with GBH News as part of our COVID and the Classroom series. “When you take away all the distractions, the only other option is to just face … life, and that's the scary part, because it's always scary to face your demons and deal with what you've been trying so hard not to.”
When Donovan struggled with mental health issues in the past, she coped by reaching out to her community. But the pandemic has removed that option — keeping her from friends, school acquaintances and activities — and brought back anxiety and depression.
“I'm just not who I was. I've lost a lot of motivation, I've lost the excitement, and there's nothing I really look forward to anymore, because everything that I used to look forward to is now canceled,” she said. "It's really hard to keep up my motivation and keep up my grades and keep attending class when all I want to do is just fade away.”
Donovan is not alone in her struggle. Nearly a year has passed since the pandemic first shuttered people away in their homes, and the mental health consequences have been significant: 40% of U.S. adults have reported struggling with mental health issues as a result of the pandemic, and of those, young people reported the highest rate of serious suicidal thoughts and substance use to cope with COVID-19 stress, according to research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Prevalence of these issues, according to the CDC, “decreased progressively with age.”
The high level of uncertainty surrounding the pandemic is affecting adolescents differently than adults, according to Clinical Counselor Felicia Houston.
“Physical distancing and the inability for children and teens to spend time with friends is negatively impacting their social development and causing psychological trouble like worry, sadness and fear,” Houston wrote in "The Forefront Magazine," a University of Chicago publication, in October. “Many teens and young adults have had to mourn the loss of important graduation ceremonies, proms and dances, and other milestone events they looked forward to, not to mention those who’ve had to deal with the loss of a family member during or due to COVID-19. Although returning to school for some has reunited friends and classmates, students are also concerned about their safety at school.”
Teenagers especially are missing the things that give them a sense of identity, Adam D. Brown, clinical assistant professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone, told GBH News. “For a teenager who is going through the normative developmental process of figuring out who she is as an adult and what's important to her and what's meaningful to her, that it makes sense that when you don't have access to the things that you need to help you on that journey, that it's going to create anxiety, it's going to make the process — which is, frankly, for most adolescents a challenging process anyway — even more challenging.”
Brown, who specializes in family and child psychology, says his patients are increasingly grappling with increased COVID-19-related stress and difficulties with development. For adolescents, lack of access to peers causes anxiety that can be uncomfortable for them to communicate to parents.
The pandemic will be a traumatic event for some families, and not for others, Brown says. Though stress may be weighing heavily on everyone’s psyche, long-term psychiatric trauma may depend on what resources are available to parents and how they approach navigating the current circumstances.
“All of us are exposed to something stressful, but within that, we each have our own experience of the pain of it,” Brown says. “In addition to that, some kids may be experiencing events that are traumatic, like experiencing loved ones or close friends who are sick or have died, and that makes their experience have another level of complexity on top of what everybody else is experiencing. It's important not to put everybody into the same category because kids are having different experiences.”
For Jenn McNary, calling her current home life “complex” would be an understatement. The Saugus-based single mom is raising two sons with muscular dystrophy, another with a primary immune deficiency, and a 10-year-old daughter with asthma.
“My kids are the extreme,” McNary told GBH News. “Everybody can say over and over that while everybody's experiencing it, we're all in the same boat. We are not in the same boat; we are all in very different boats. Same flood, different boats.”
Because her children are more sensitive to the impacts of contracting COVID-19, McNary says their entire social lives exist within the confines of their home, which has caused conflict on days like her son James’ 13th birthday.
“Thirteen is a big age. You turn into a teenager and normally there would be this big celebration, but we were fighting so much during that period of time around his birthday.” McNary said. “He didn't understand why I was being so different from a lot of his friends’ parents. He was watching friends go out, and I think that's a fight that parents have with their teens anyway, but for now, it's like life or death. I can't let you out of the house.”
Now James has flipped to the other side of the spectrum, McNary says.
“Now that he's watching people dying of COVID-19, he's terrified,” McNary said. “He's so panicked about exposure, and I think it's turning him into quite a neurotic person. He's also worried because he has immune deficiency and he's like, I'm never going to get out of here, I'm never going to be able to leave the house again. I see his anxiety cropping up, and I think he's going to be more than a germaphobe for the rest of his life.”
McNary says her 10-year-old daughter is struggling to grow emotionally, without a social life and friends to build an identity around.
“For 10 months she has not seen another young girl in-person, and I think that it's affecting her maturity levels,” McNary said. “She's starting to regress and act much younger than she is, and she's exhibiting a lot of behaviors that are attention seeking behaviors. Really, I'm really just watching her not develop in the way that she should be. I wouldn't say that she's depressed, but she's spending an awful lot of time on her computer and she doesn't want to play outside because there's nobody to play with.”
When working with parents of children who are struggling, Brown advises what to some may seem like an impossible task: Take care of yourself first.
“If you're anxious and overwhelmed, your kid is going to pick up on that, and it might make them anxious and overwhelmed,” Brown said. “It’s like on an airplane — put on your own oxygen mask before you try to help somebody else. Many parents don't even know that they are overwhelmed and struggling, and so it's important to take a step back and reflect and ask that question.”
In addition to post-traumatic stress, Brown says it’s important to consider “post-traumatic growth,” which can come as a product of people developing insight from difficult experiences.
“They come to see themselves as kind of brave and as survivors for going through what they did and learn to make meaning of what happened to them,” Brown said. “I think even though most of us will be traumatized by our experiences, if we can learn to make some positive meaning from it, then I think there's some reason to be hopeful going forward.”
For McNary, that perspective comes from reminding herself that the only real constant is change.
“When we come out of the pandemic, there will be things about pandemic life that we liked, but those things will also change,” McNary said. “I try to sit there and say, OK, I hate this, but I know it's going to change.”
Next year, Donovan will be a freshman in college, likely living in another state, making new friends and experiencing a new world. With one semester left of high school, in the doldrums of Massachusetts winter, Donovan says she’s focusing on little things to get by.
“I still always try and look on the bright side, as hard as it is, I still just try about what I can hold on to that I love,” she said. “Whether it's my favorite song or a movie I like or a TV show or just something small. If I get out of bed and do one thing, I’m proud of myself, those are little victories.”
Written, reported and audio by Tori Bedford, video by Emily Judem