By J. Gallagher, 17 years old

This past year has been strange for everyone, but us teens have really had the strangest year of our lives — as many of us are navigating high school, mental health issues, and the college admissions process all while missing out on the usual things like hanging out with friends, visiting colleges, and experiencing our teenage years to the fullest extent. Personally, I struggle with depression, anxiety, and ADHD — and all of this has been seriously impacted by COVID.

A year in review

Last March, when it all started, I was a junior in high school. It was supposed to be the most rigorous part of my high school career with college applications, standardized tests, and taking lots of advanced classes. But the scramble to try to continue our education “as normal” was a major fail. School became less and less of a priority for everyone, myself included, and my friends and I didn’t really get to take the end half of our courses. My grades dropped a lot, and honestly, it was really difficult to care that they did. School, which was once a top priority for me, didn’t really matter anymore. **Since school was something I prioritized for so long, I felt less productive, more depressed, and like I was disappointing my parents, my teachers, and myself. **

Not to mention the college admissions process, which became random and hard to navigate, even with the accommodations that certain universities made for applicants. I applied to 15 colleges — I probably wouldn’t have applied to so many if it was a normal year and getting into college was more of a guarantee. And while I personally benefited from many schools becoming test-optional, there are a lot of students who were relying on their standardized test scores to get into their top schools and were rejected because of the changes. Many of my friends who graduated last year tell me that they don’t feel like they even left high school since their senior year was cut short so suddenly, despite the fact that they are now finishing up their first year of college (most remotely). Even though my school district has done a lot to try and accommodate its students and make this year as normal as possible, it has still been incredibly hard to navigate and taken a toll on all of us. Not being able to navigate our academic futures became overwhelming and, at times, even scary.

When it comes to my ADHD, I can’t just sit in front of a computer screen for seven hours a day and try to learn. My brain just doesn’t work like that. I’m lucky enough to live in an area that lets students attend school in person full-time, and I’m able to have as “normal” an education that I can for my last year of high school. But many students aren’t able to attend school in-person and are stuck trying to deal with distance learning, causing a real struggle for them to continue to focus on school work and perform well.

What it’s meant for teen mental health

With all that’s going on, a lot of my friends started looking for help. Most of them were unable to start seeing a therapist as many doctors were closed to new patients because of COVID. The wait lists were also crazy… I’m lucky enough that I’ve been seeing a therapist weekly for the past few years. But, once quarantine began and our sessions transitioned to phone-only, there was a loss of privacy. My siblings and parents could hear our conversations and there was definitely an unavoidable loss of understanding and connection between my therapist and I. Facial expressions, body language, and physical understanding are really important in conversation for me (especially since I am someone who is very expressive with my hands) and in being able to relate to and understand another person. This kind of human intimacy was lost via the phone, and my therapist even said that it’s been difficult for her to tend to her patients in the same way over the phone. I wonder what it would have been like if we turned to virtual therapy instead of the phone. Virtual therapy would have offered me a more “normal” therapy experience and helped to add structure to my life when it was missing in so many other ways.

My friends aren’t only seeking help for school reasons. Being completely isolated socially, teenagers have only themselves to talk to and lean on. In my personal experience and in that of many of my friends, those of us who struggle with mental illness felt it intensify over the last year. One of my friends has struggled with an eating disorder for years and isolation only allowed her illness to grow. She didn’t have the usual routines and structure in place like going out to eat with friends that had helped. The isolated environment also made it more difficult for those of us who struggle with anxiety and depression. The loss of daily structure and activities worsened my depression; it became difficult for me to motivate myself to do basic tasks. There was no need to get out of bed at all, so I didn’t. I know that many of my friends suffering with anxiety became really paranoid about the virus itself and their family members getting sick.

More recently, with vaccines rolling out and the slow return to normalcy, teenagers still aren’t getting to experience the end of their childhood. I won’t get a prom or a real graduation. I haven't seen most of my older friends since January, and I won’t see them until after May, because their universities aren't allowing students to leave campus or bring visitors. **This lasting isolation is still a heavy burden to carry and while hopes for the future are brightening, teens continue to struggle with mental health. **

What’s next?

With all that’s going on it’s been important for me to maintain relationships and have regular contact with friends and family, even if it’s through a computer screen. I talk to one of my friends who goes to college in D.C. on the phone at least once a week. Being able to socialize in any way possible makes me feel more human and helps to break down the isolation that we’ve all been forced into for so long. Trying to stay active and spending time outside is also crucial for me in fighting my depression, especially with the summer months approaching and as the weather gets nicer.

While things are returning to somewhat “normal,” a lot will stay different. Striking a balance between returning to our old routines and keeping to the COVID-safe rules is hard, but necessary to keep us all safe. This period of time is awkward and difficult, but it’s manageable. We will get through this. There’s a light at the end of the tunnel.