The Kids May Not Be Alright... But They Will Be.
Amidst “The Great Reopening,” a record number of teens are struggling with the social / emotions effects of the pandemic. They may be struggling, however they’re also asking for help.
John was a quintessential high school jock and all American boy next door - a title he wore proudly. He played a sport each season, participated in service projects, was involved in his local youth group and stood up for his peers that didn’t have the confidence to stand up for themselves. He wasn’t perfect, his academics and report from his parents would attest to that, and he had decent insight into what he needed to improve to be the best version of himself that he could be (he really got into Ted Lasso).
When we first met, in May of 2020, he was a ball of emotions. Mainly, he was angry.
He wouldn’t have a prom. Prospects of showcasing his talent at lacrosse for college recruiters were dashed. He missed his teammates. Quite frankly, he missed personal human interaction - He hadn’t seen a person outside of his immediate family in almost 2 months. He was conflicted in his relationship with his girlfriend, recognizing that he was missing her and FaceTime wasn’t cutting it, however not wanting to come off as needy, “I don’t want to be that guy, ya know?”
This was a kid who drew his energy from other people, really coming alive in school, on the field, or just hanging around with friends. All of what he knew in his soul was essential for his livelihood vanished overnight. His parents noticed his uncharacteristic moodiness and in one specific argument, he himself suggested therapy. He was able to recognize that needed to work out some stuff.
Initially, he seemed awkward and out of his element, being new to counseling and exploring his inner world, however took to it soon enough. Despite his heartache and simmering angst at the seeming persistence of the Covid restrictions, he maintained hope, recognizing, “this isn’t going to be forever.” This positive mindset, however, began to dim at the lasting impacts affected other rites of passage.
He would soon enough learn that a service trip planned for the summer, building homes in Coast Rica (which would have been his first time out of the country), would be cancelled. A summer job of being a camp counselor, at a camp he’d been a part of since his childhood, was no longer an option. The straw the broke his back was receiving the devastating blow of news from his college: There would be no in class instruction and no residential experience for the semester. He would be attending his first year of college virtually.
All of the gusto was gone, energy depleted… He was giving up his fight. Within weeks he filed for a medical leave of absence as it was quite apparent that attending to his mental health needed to take precedence over moving forward with his academic plan. Working collaboratively with his parents, we put together a plan of more intensive care and ramped up his journey toward healing. Within a matter of 5 months, the energetic, optimistic all-American kid looked like a shell of himself. The weekend after he was admitted to a residential treatment facility, I met with his family to debrief, and cried for him.
"What our teens are needing now, perhaps more than ever before, is connection."
As you can imagine, John’s story is not unique, given the landscape of the past 20 months. Teens across the country have been struggling with their mental health. What once was a statistic of 1 in 4 teens meeting criteria to be diagnosed with a mental health condition is now purported to be 1 in 3. Identifying the needs of our youth is important, however moreso, being able to respond to these needs is critical.
Behavioral health providers have experienced a surge of demand for services since the onset of the pandemic. As a provider of adolescent counseling services, NJ Recovery & Wellness works collaboratively with other local clinicians and practices to appropriately address the needs of our teens. In doing so, several stark realities are presenting themselves: Behavioral health providers are reaching their capacity, available adolescent services are struggling to meet current demands, and school based counselors need more support to meet the increasing social / emotional developmental needs of their students.
When I connect and collaborate with colleagues who work with teens, I find myself putting feelers out there, seeking to get other perspectives. What are you seeing? Any trends you’re noticing? I find myself saying to my peers, parents and teen clients alike - There will be teams of researchers following this demographic for decades to come, seeking to learn what we can about the developing mind’s response to a prolonged crisis event that involves rumpured attachment. Yes, this is what our teens have experienced. Ruptured attachment is a relational trauma, one that takes time to heal from. And relational traumas often lead to clinically significant life impairments.
So when your teen is acting disarmingly moody; When they’re sleep patterns are all over the place; When they refer to a parent by their first name as opposed to mom/dad; When you’re seeing things that suggest they may be leaning more heavily into alcohol or marijuana than what you’d consider appropriate; When their peer relationships are on-again, off-again; When they lose all motivation to take care of themselves - including bathing and oral hygiene; When they spend more time with online friends than the neighborhood kids; When their grades suddenly drop unexpectedly; When they sneak out at night; When they feel afraid and have no idea why… They’re saying that they’re not OK. And as Marshmello & Demi Lovato mentioned last year, it’s OK Not to Be OK.
What our teens are needing now, perhaps more than ever before, is connection. But connection is complicated; there’s risk involved. The problem with relational trauma is that it takes the concept of trust and security in relationships with others and throws it in a blender, making the perceived outcome unpredictable - a threat. So, in essence, our teens are craving connection, however are uncertain if connecting with others is safe. And we really can’t blame them! One of the more significant risks of connection is the prospect of losing it. When our youth (all of us, really) thought they were not going to school for only 2 weeks, and didn’t go back at all, their lives changed. Unpredictably, unprovoked, without explanation that they could understand, the way that they were used to relating to the world turned upside-down. We are now seeing the aftermath of some of this grief. And that’s OK.
One of the best things we can do for our teens is be there with them, holding space, as they work out their ruptured attachment. Being a consistent, stable support while they test your boundaries, trying to see if they can trust that your relationship, the connection, isn't going to change, can be difficult, but it is absolutely crucial. This is how we help our teens heal.
So yes, the general consensus for adolescent mental health is that our youth are struggling, and yet there’s hope. In the midst of the outpouring of need for behavioral health services, we’ve seen many therapy practices expanding services, hiring new therapist positions to address waiting lists; We’ve seen more providers offering Telehealth services than ever before, expanding access to those who may otherwise struggle to access therapy; We’ve seen school boards contracting with mental health agencies to come in and provide therapeutic groups to students, responding to specific community needs; and teens themselves are speaking out and speaking up, asking for therapy - they’re recognizing they need help.
"The general consensus for adolescent mental health is that our youth are struggling, and yet there’s hope."
Believe it or not, one blessing we may take out of the pandemic is that on a national level, we’re starting to dismantle the stigma toward accessing mental health services. We have a long way to go, but the gears are in motion, and with consistent efforts, our teens will heal.
John ended up not going back to his college of choice. After completing his residential treatment program and recommended aftercare plan, he continues to attend a young adult weekly counseling group, focused on issues surrounding unexpected pandemic-related life changes. He works a part time job and attends a local community college - a decision both he and his parents agreed was the best option for a year or two while he gets back on his feet. He’s able to crack a smile at my bad therapist jokes and on occasion I get to see that whole-bodied, belly laugh when he recounts a story of something he did with his friends. He’s still got a ways to go, but he’s going to be alright.