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  • Ingrid Nilsson and Imana Adogu

Georgia Teens Reflect on Mental Health

Monday morning at 8 a.m., sophomore Sarah Brandt walks into a class at Oconee County High School. Looking around, she notices that a student near her desk doesn’t have a mask. Heart rate rising, fingers twitching, she holds her breath while taking out her notes.

Brandt is one of many students who has developed anxiety during the pandemic. The mental health crisis among teenagers has spread like a contagion throughout the country.

“We have the same expectations as before the pandemic. I'm still expected to do amazing in all my classes, but now there's so much that's going on in the world that I just can't control, which really heightens anxiety,” Brandt says.

Anxiety and depression infect many parts of teenage life. Whether students are attending class online or in person, their stress has multiplied exponentially, and after a year of social distancing, many teens feel emotionally numb.

“I feel like I don't really have the need to have feelings. My emotions would swing when I was with my friends between happy and sad, but they’re not really doing that anymore. I’m just content,” says Leo Hayden, an online learner and freshman at North Oconee High School.

Adding to student isolation is the fact that the activities that usually boost teenage mental health, such as volunteering and sports participation, have been cancelled or modified. Not only does this take away activities that relax students, it also increases the stress of college applications.

“It’s just harder to find opportunities, especially because I want to go into the medical field,” says Ruhee Merchant, a junior at Parkview High School. “I also don’t have that external validation, and I feel like I’m just not doing enough, for college at least.”

Many teenagers are also confronting increased incidents of racism in addition to health fears.

“There are more hate crimes than ever before towards Asians,” says Allie Chang, a Chinese-American student in her third year at Cedar Shoals High School. “When the pandemic first started coming around, we were already getting blamed for that, when we didn’t do anything wrong.”

Bob Sears, Athens Academy school counselor and director of student services, notes that today’s teens face a culmination of stress factors.

“High school students have forever faced big challenges over the years but never in the course of human history have students had to face a global pandemic while simultaneously having to deal with the constant pressures of social media, significant political division, and civil unrest,” Sears says.

However, it’s not all “doom and gloom,” according to Sears. The increasing popularity and availability of telecounseling and online therapy platforms such as Talkspace and Better Help are making counseling more feasible for those who have been hesitant to seek assistance.

Sears also encourages students to try out new hobbies and invest in wellness through exercise, mindfulness, and community connection.

“While technology and social media has made people feel more lonely and sad in some cases,” Sears says, “it may also be the very thing, when used with intent and purpose, that helps people stay connected at a time when they are being asked to be distant.”

Georgia’s youth in crisis can now access the Georgia Crisis and Access Line via text and chat through a new app called My GCAL. Developed by Behavioral Health Link, the app will allow youth to call, text, or chat with GCAL 24/7/365.