Note: This is the first part of a three-part series on student mental health by the Vashon Riptide, the student newspaper of Vashon High School. Parts 2 and 3 will be re-published in The Beachcomber in the coming weeks. To read the series in its entirety, and other recent student journalism, visit riptide.vashonsd.org.
Content warning: This article covers triggering topics such as self-harm, suicide, mental health issues, and trauma. If these make you uncomfortable, we implore you to stop reading. If you are struggling with these issues yourself, please reach out to any of the resources below. If you are dealing with suicidal thoughts or actions, please make a trusted friend, family member, or school staff member aware.
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255; National Sexual Assault Hotline: 1-800-656-HOPE (4673); Eating Disorders Awareness and Prevention: 1-800-931-2237; S.A.F.E. (Self Abuse Finally Ends): 1-800-DONT-CUT; National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Helpline: 1-800-950-NAMI (6264); GriefShare: 1-800-395-5755; Drug Abuse National Helpline: 1-800-662-4357; Family Violence Prevention Center: 1-800-313-1310; National Domestic Violence Hotline: 1-800-799-SAFE.
By Halle Wyatt and Savannah Butcher
For the Vashon Riptide
When the Vashon Island School District closed each of its campuses as ordered by the state in early March of 2020, staff and students alike believed that the lockdown would last no longer than six weeks.
Nearly a year later, students are still studying and attending classes at home from behind a computer screen. Google Meets and social isolation have become the new normal for high schoolers over the past year, but a burgeoning mental health crisis has been creeping up on students.
Student mental health
Throughout the school year, staff has tried many different methods to gauge the mental health and stability of students at the high school. Most of these evaluations have been through attendance and engagement-based check-ins and surveys about various aspects of student experiences in the past five months.
In early February, The Riptide sent out an anonymous survey asking students to discuss their mental health struggles in greater detail.
Out of 117 responses, 60.6 percent stated that they were struggling more than usual or extremely struggling with online learning, and 83.1 percent of the respondents said they were struggling with their mental health throughout online school. Only 9.4 percent said that they were not struggling at all, and 7.7 percent said they were struggling less than before the lockdown.
These struggles are wide and varied, and survey data suggest that many students who were struggling with various mental health problems before the pandemic have seen their conditions worsen.
“I’ve had issues with social anxiety and such for a while, but as this pandemic continues and the longer we‘re stuck at home, the worse my anxiety is getting,” one anonymous student said. “It’s switched to more generalized anxiety and sometimes it affects how I’m doing my school work. Overall it’s cascaded into a loop of anxiety that is challenging to break.”
Other students are now experiencing mental health problems that they previously hadn’t been affected by.
“About a month into the quarantine is when the loneliness and isolation really started to kick in,” another anonymous student said. “When school started in September … it really started to get worse. School felt unnecessarily stressful even though we weren’t learning the same amount of material. The isolation and inability to socialize were incredibly difficult, with apathy and loneliness creeping further into my mind. I didn’t have (and still don’t have) a strict concept of time… weeks blended together with every day being the exact same. I’ve been talking to my best friend, [who] shares a lot of the same struggles. We talk about these difficulties together and it helps.”
Other students also discussed the difficulty of managing homework assignments.
“I’m not motivated to do anything. The school work builds up and gives me anxiety looking at all of the assignments I have to finish,” another student said. “[This] makes me depressed because I don’t know why I can’t bring myself to work harder.”
Many students are tackling tricky home situations on top of their mental health struggles.
“[Some students] may not have homes that are conducive to learning. Others have siblings they need to take care of while their parents are away at work … Some students have food insecurity and can’t afford to keep their homes warm,” said Katie Konrad, a nurse practitioner at Vashon Natural Medicine. “Expectations of them filling these adult roles and completing school successfully require an inordinate amount of maturity and organization.”
Konrad has noticed that kids who have more responsibilities at home are more overwhelmed during online learning. She seeks to connect these families to resources that can ease the burdens these students face.
Although so many students are struggling more during online learning, 37.9 percent of survey respondents said they were not being supported by the school, but they did not need any help.
Only 20.3 percent said they were being treated by mental health professionals, while 46.6 percent of students surveyed said that they primarily went to friends for mental health support.
“I have seen the tremendous power in adolescent friendship and know many teenagers who have been great supporters to their friends during tough times. However, teenagers are not trained therapists and should never take on the sole responsibility of trying to help someone through depression or anxiety,” Anna Waldman, a Neighborcare therapist, said. “If you are feeling drained by a friend’s mental health problems or concerned about them, encourage that friend to seek professional help, or consider talking to an adult about your concerns. I would encourage teens now, more than ever, to make sure they are focusing on their own self-care before extending support to others. We can’t be good supporters when we aren’t taking care of ourselves, and learning to set boundaries in relationships is a critical part of becoming an adult.”
A 2020 survey sent to all seventh and eighth graders at McMurray Middle School concluded over 60 percent were feeling anxious or depressed more than half the week. Kailey Pearce, a McMurray counselor, has taken the survey results to heart.
“More than a couple of days a week, students are feeling bothered by feelings of worry or anxiety,” Pearce said. “It showed us that this is … a massive issue that’s going to take multiple angles to create an environment that helps alleviate that. No one should be living with that stress, especially youth.”
Middle school is a unique time in kids’ lives to work on executive functioning skills, but mental health struggles can take an enormous amount of energy, especially from a young student. This can directly affect their high school performance.
“Particularly in middle school… [students] are still learning executive functioning skills like organization, [self-management], and how to motivate themselves to engage,” Pearce said. “The beauty of being in school is you have a teacher who can prompt you, get to know you, and figure out what your learning style is. With everyone spread out in their own rooms, that connection is not there.”
With this crucial connection between students and teachers gone, it is becoming increasingly difficult to spot a struggling student — especially over a Google Meet.
Normalizing bad mental health can be harmful, especially if it is dismissed as a typical teenage struggle and if help is never sought out.
“Teens tell me friends say things like ‘I only slept three hours last night’ or ‘everyone is anxious.’ Struggling isn’t normal. It isn’t good. But we accept it as normal,” Katie Jo Glaves, a marriage and family therapist and art therapist at Protea Wellness, said. “I don’t think school is that much harder than it was 20 years ago, but there are more tests. There is more competition. Everyone thinks they have to be the best at something to have a future. That isn’t true and it is fueling competition and mental health struggles.”
Waldman echoed Glaves’ response to how teens dismiss their mental health needs.
“It’s common for people to minimize their suffering because it’s ‘not as bad’ as someone else’s. This is a defense mechanism that allows us to feel like we are in control and everything is ‘okay.’ The problem with this way of thinking is there will always be someone worse off than you are,” Waldman said. “It’s important to honestly ask yourself how much you’re being impacted by a problem, without making comparisons to others.”
Students with bad mental health may also be juggling reduced school performance, sleep loss, appetite loss, and weakened or unstable relationships. If students notice their mental health is preventing them from fulfilling their responsibilities or doing normal activities, Waldman recommends getting additional support.
Although Waldman believes support of any kind is beneficial, it is important to reach out to a professional mental health specialist as opposed to exclusively friends or family.
“It is important to figure out who the supportive people in your life are and spend time with them or connect with them. I would define supportive as the people who see your strengths and help you express and develop the best parts of yourself. Supportive people can be honest with you and you can be honest with them. Supportive people know what you’re capable of and hold you to a high standard. This could be a coach, a teacher, a friend, a parent, a spiritual leader,” Waldman said. “It’s important to say, [however], these people aren’t trained therapists. They can’t treat depression or anxiety, but they can help you access the positive parts of yourself and will tell you when you need help.”
For some students with mental illness, suicidal ideations not only come naturally, but they make them feel hopeless, despite being surrounded by support.
“I attempted [suicide] twice in April and my paranoia and dissociation have gotten worse, but I haven’t told my therapist about those (I know that that’s what they are but I’m not sure what disorder they are connected to),” an anonymous student said.
Other respondents also noted being treated for suicidal ideation and self-harm.
“I have had to see doctors and therapists because of my dealing with suicidal thoughts and self-harm, as well as some severe anxiety.” another anonymous student said.
Gina Ball, a pediatric ICU head nurse from Seattle has been working non-stop since the pandemic’s start. Ball sees the aftermath of these mental health issues.
“[The most difficult part recently] in terms of mental health has been seeing more kids that need mental help. It’s tough because there are so many people who are challenged by mental health and to see the influx of kids who are pretty young coming in that need help is challenging.” Ball said. “It’s hard for us to see that emotionally, but my whole team — everybody is here to help them. Luckily we’re able to do that for most kids and they’re able to get hooked up with services that help them get through things.”
Therapy can help these at-risk individuals tremendously. One common roadblock stopping students from pursuing mental health assistance is a lack of financial resources or a lack of safety in disclosing their issues with their guardians.
“If someone out there is struggling and can’t get in to see a therapist, I would encourage them to call the Neighborcare Clinic at VHS or Vashon Youth and Family Services,” Waldman said. “[Our] therapists would only be available for video or phone sessions, but it would be free and can be confidential.”
Although Neighborcare’s therapists have a waiting list currently, students can still call to get aid in finding another therapist accepting clients. One of the advantages of online therapy is the ease of staying home, which diminishes the previous barrier of travel and opens students’ options.
Many students expressed frustration with the administration’s slow start to giving support and their methods in providing it.
“[They] didn’t give a f*** about us before this term and [their] way of approaching us about mental health is terrible,” an anonymous student said. “[They] need to be more proactive and [use] less clean up crew style [methods].’’
— Halle Wyatt is the managing editor of the Vashon Riptide; Savannah Butcher is the design editor of the Vashon Riptide.