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Teen Angst Amplified in the Age of Covid

Thu, 07/23/2020 - 11:18
Sorrel Miller, left, and Faith Fenelon are local teens who recently took a masked outing to the beach.
Jon Kuperschmid

Emily Dyner has seen her world flipped upside down.

After Covid-19 caused the cancellation of her school swim season, the rising East Hampton High School junior said she felt cut off from her friends, and more depressed because she was "so used to being constantly busy and swimming over 10 hours per week." Having her favorite activity and friends ripped away from her on such short notice was heartbreaking for the teen, who said a major part of her mental health is social interaction, and the "lack of social interactions due to the pandemic negatively impacted" her.

For many teens, there has been an increased pressure to socialize in seemingly Covid-risky situations that, Emily said, come from a "desire to see friends after being apart for so long."

When teens go out to meet up with friends, it is often written off as ignorant. However, in a study titled "The Effects of Social Deprivation on Adolescent Development and Mental Health," published in The Lancet in June, Dr. Amy Orben, Dr. Livia Tomova, and Dr. Sarah-Jayne Blakemore say that social distancing measures "are likely to have a substantial effect" on an "individual's mental health," and "the negative effects of physical distancing and social deprivation might be particularly profound for adolescents." When looking at animal models presented in the research, evidence suggests that adolescents' need to "go out" is integral to their development.

While news headlines have been focused on the physical implications of the Covid-19 virus, there has been less focus on unique challenges teenagers grapple with. The pandemic adds immense pressure to the already chaotic worlds of teens, according to the Cleveland Clinic, a major medical facility in Cleveland, Ohio. Dr. Ellen Rome, a pediatrician at the clinic, said that the social isolation and disrupted routine associated with the pandemic are likely to compound pre-existing mental health problems. While adults are facing their own emotional turmoil as the pandemic affects both lives and livelihoods, teens have not been left out of the anguish of Covid-19.

Danielle Montoya, a rising junior at East Hampton High School, has felt especially concerned for the safety of her grandparents during the pandemic. They are diabetic, so Danielle said she was "very nervous" and had a lot of anxiety that they would get the virus. To protect them, her family maintained a quarantine from them.

For some teens, the idea of losing family members has been a leading component of increased stress and anxiety. "The whole time I was in quarantine I was more worried about other people that I love getting sick than myself," Danielle said.

Many teens, like Danielle, face an entirely new ethical dilemma: Sacrificing their own mental health in order to protect the ones they love. Amari Gordon, a rising East Hampton High School junior, says his "number-one fear is going out and catching something, and then giving it to a family member."

Grace Brosnan, a rising junior at Pierson High School, has felt ups and downs in her mental health during the pandemic. It "has fluctuated during quarantine," she said. "I went from feeling great about myself and about my body because of the way I was eating and how much I was working out — those were the highs." The lows, however, were when she "would spend so much time on social media and see these beautiful women with beautiful bodies and feel awful" about herself.

Increased time alone with social media has the potential for boosting dysmorphic tendencies in teens — another detriment to their mental health, according to Amir Dorafshar, a Rush University plastic surgeon who tackles "social media dysmorphia."

The pandemic has not taken such a toll on all youth. Cosmo Hamada, a rising junior at the Ross School, has an entirely different take.

"Quarantine subtly inverted my daily lifestyle. Instead of the daily filing in and out of school, I began traversing the roads through Springs, Amagansett, and the Northwest Woods on my bike," Cosmo said. "I have never felt more at the reins of my own life. Quarantine put me in the position to think more independently from an action-based standpoint, meaning it was my responsibility to get myself around and get my work in."

"The sudden lockdown separated this age group from their peers, took away their daily routine, limited them to online learning, and kept them full time at home," says Dr. Bettina Volz, an Amagansett psychologist.

"I have seen an increase in depression and anxiety for teenagers in response to the pandemic," Dr. Volz said, reinforcing the fact that this demographic has not been left unscathed. "They couldn't enjoy their senior spring with its traditions and fun and for many it is still unclear what their first year in college will look like."

Her advice for teenagers and parents to stay mentally healthy during this period: Initiate FaceTime talks with friends to escape the isolation, focus on solving short-term problems and try to suspend the long-term ones, and stay active — socially, mentally, and physically, which "counteracts anxiety and depression."

Although for many teens the pandemic may feel insurmountable, there is one piece of advice that should stay in the minds of all, according to Dr. Volz: This is only temporary.


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