Coming Out of COVID: How to Best Support Youth Mental Health


By: Leslie M. Booren

As families, schools and communities start to navigate this phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, we sat down with two community wellness experts to understand more about how adults can best support youth mental health.

Whether you are a parent, teacher or adult who works with youth, this series of Q&As will provide perspectives and considerations through a positive youth development lens. With a focus on the whole child, we talk with experts about medicine, community, education and talk directly with youth themselves. 

In this Q&A, we talk with two wellness experts who are embedded in community programs. Kara Snapp is a wellness specialist at the Boys & Girls Clubs of Central Virginia and a yoga instructor at the UVA Contemplative Science Center where Youth-Nex is an affiliated organization. Laura Handler is the director of prevention at the Region Ten Community Services Board, and in a role that has partnered with Youth-Nex in the past for our ‘Returning to School with Equity in Mind’ series.


QuestionYouth have had a year of change. What do you think their new normal will be in the next year from a wellness standpoint?

Handler: As we transition back to a changed normal, unresolved grief from the past year will likely need to be attended to, not just around the loss of life, but also loss of opportunities, experiences, rites of passage, and more. We anticipate higher rates of adolescents demonstrating anxiety, depression, inattention, and other stress related symptoms just as we have seen in the adult population. It is critical for adults to pause to pay attention and ask our youth about these potential feelings or symptoms, or we may miss critical opportunities to help them express and understand what they are going through.

Encouraging youth to engage with school, sports, hobbies, faith communities, jobs, and other areas of personal interest will support their wellness through connection, skill-building opportunities, and instilling a sense of purpose and hope. Maintaining healthy nutrition, sleep patterns, and physical activity will also help promote overall wellness in our young people.

Snapp: I honestly believe that most young people will be pleased to return to mask-free, in-person social experiences in which they can high-five and hug their friends, travel to see family, have birthday parties, play dates, and more. I think many will find relief from the past year when they return to school full-time. Many will just jump right back in where they left off, while others may struggle. Guidance counselors and other support professionals in schools may be expanding their reach and serving youth in different types of ways. 

Many youth have found connection in the virtual world of videogames and social media, increasing screen time beyond healthy limits. I worry that many young people have become excessive in their use and see nothing limiting about the extensive use of social media, etc. I hope that a return to school and socializing will naturally minimize screen usage, as in-person connections deepen. But, there may need to be limitations put into place so that students may focus while at school.

 

QuestionWhat type of challenges do you anticipate developmentally for adolescents who have been adjusting throughout the pandemic?

Handler: One of the major challenges I anticipate will be re-honing in person social skills and re-establishing or re-defining the sense of belonging that is so important for adolescents. The social skills that have gotten significant attention and practice over the past year have primarily been through technology and in online formats. While young people have gained some great skills navigating online learning and interfacing, we use a different set of social skills in person that adolescents may need to re-acclimate to and practice such as how to navigate group situations with others who do not share their same interests as they may have within the context of a video game or online chat/discussion boards.

Snapp: It's important to recognize that youth have not been 'not learning' social-emotional skills. They are simply different skills than are typical during pre-Covid times. Many youth have developed increased self-discipline and have deepened relationships with family members. Others have spent increased amounts of time with older family members. Some young people have had increased responsibilities.

 

Question: What is on the horizon for wellness and mental health that youth and adults should expect?

Handler: While we cannot predict the future or say with certainty what the next year will look like, we do know that the next year will be one of more transitions. We can help young people navigate transitions by discussing what changes are coming, communicating clear expectations, and understanding that we may need to have more patience and compassion as we encounter challenges along the way. One of the most important ways we can support youth through times of adversity is providing them with caring, consistent adult relationships. Research shows that children who have supportive adults in their lives do better in times of adversity than those who do not. I hope the new normal includes more adults asking youth about how they are doing and offering support and connecting them to resources as needed.

In order to provide good support to young people, it is essential for adults to make sure they are taking care of themselves first and foremost. Youth constantly look to the adults in their lives as models and barometers of how things are going and how they should respond. If the adults are stressed, overwhelmed, and not reaching out to others for support and care or utilizing healthy coping strategies, they will not be able to support youth in the ways our children need. We, as parents, educators, and other caring adults, cannot pour from an empty cup and must prioritize our own care to ensure that we can help our youth.

Snapp: I think "new normal" is a concept that delivers some level of comfort amidst the unknown. I think we can talk about how we can utilize community networks, organizations, and supports to healthfully recover from the pandemic. My hope is that stigma related to accessing mental health support is minimized. It's been over a year of increased divorce rates, substance abuse, disordered eating, domestic violence, and traumatic loss. The experience of the past 15+ months has been layered with issues related to the pandemic, systemic racism, and political instability. Clinical mental health professionals are booked solid, and for many their waitlists are even full. This tells me that not only is the need greater, but more people are reaching out for the help they need. I hope that this is a reflection of the normalization of mental health care and its importance.


The other Q&As in this series highlighting perspectives on community, education & research, youth voice, and medicine are available at education.virginia.edu/YN/COVID

Youth-Nex was founded in 2009 to expand and apply the science of positive youth development to address fundamental challenges facing societies around the world. Through science and community partnerships, Youth-Nex enhances the strengths of children and adolescents and prevents developmental risk. Our vision is that our nation’s youth - a rich, often untapped resource - may flourish.