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Teens growing up during COVID-19 pandemic going through unique struggle

With seemingly no end in sight to the uncertainty that comes with the pandemic, how are teens coping now that we’re months into dealing with COVID-19?

The pandemic brought on a drastic change to group of people who are already dealing with critical transitions in life.

But that doesn’t mean everyone is struggling in the same way, says Dr. Javeed Sukhera, an associate professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at Western University.

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“There are some teens who are actually doing great,” said Sukhera.

“They otherwise would not be particularly fond of being in school or being in social situations and they are at home, they’re doing okay.

“That stated, there is a large group, as well, of people who are having a very significant negative effect on their mental health.”

Read more: Destigmatizing suicide could help those in need: mental health advocate

For those struggling, Sukhera said this can mean anxiety or despair.

There are also challenges, he said, for those moving into adulthood.

“For many older teens, their whole life begins and ends in the moment, and when you’re in a situation where you’re facing an unprecedented global stressor like we are, they can get really stuck in that moment and that can lead to a significant amount of despair, negative mood and in some cases, tragically, suicidal thinking as well.”

But every teen has their own unique set of challenges.

“I think we have to be very careful in making generalizations about large groups of people,” said Sukhera.

“Young people are often stereotyped in negative ways in society and I think their own voices can help us understand how they’re struggling.”

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Liv McNeil, a Grade 10 student at Etobicoke School for the Arts in Ontario, shared a school project on YouTube this past June.

The short film, titled Numb, offered what the 15-year-old describes as a generalization of the feeling of isolation, touching on themes of loneliness and longing for the past.

Without a single line of dialogue, McNeil spoke to more than 1.3 million viewers on YouTube.

“I forget about how many people saw it and actually related to it,” said McNeil.

“And then I get Instagram DMs and people my age, or even older, telling how they look up to me. And it’s so weird — Grade 12s, cool high school kids DMing and saying ‘this is so cool, I relate to it’.”

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Read more: Mental health struggles common during pandemic: Canadian health provider

McNeil said she’s changed her outlook since making the despair-inspired film early during the pandemic.

“At the beginning, it was so detrimental and I couldn’t see the light at the end of the tunnel at all and it was just awful,” she said.

“But after going through everything, I kind of feel like I’ve hit rock bottom and come back up and now I have a lot more hope.”

McNeil said she’s adapting to isolation, and puts more effort into connecting with friends online, has a deeper appreciation for nature — and recognizes that video games, movies and writing all serve as healthy coping mechanisms.

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Andrea Harvey, mental health lead for the Thames Valley District School Board, one of the largest boards in Ontario, said McNeil’s attitude is an example of teen resilience.

“Most recently, I was privileged to meet with our board’s student trustees and the larger student advisory committee… and it was clear that they were spending time reflecting on things that made them happy,” said Harvey.

“They’re finding creative ways to remain connected with their family and friends and animals and nature… they’re engaging in leisure pursuits, they’re reading books!”

Read more: Winnipeg crisis line seeing uptick in calls due to COVID-19 pandemic

Another unexpected benefit of the pandemic, said Harvey, has been an increased transparency surrounding mental health.

“People are actually willing to have that conversation, we’ve created space for people to talk about their mental health and wellbeing more openly,” she said.

“Instead of pathologizing mental health, we’re normalizing the fact that we all have mental health and our level of functioning day-to-day is going to be impacted by both our environments and our experiences.”

McNeil said nostalgia has become a tough emotion, missing everything she had before COVID-19.

“It’s almost like a distant memory that I don’t even remember happening… I can’t even fathom that I used to have sleepovers with my friends like that seems illegal now,” she said.

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With vaccines now arriving in Canada, McNeil’s expecting a slow return to what life once was.

And while there’s a long road ahead to greener pastures, the young filmmaker sees hope on the horizon.

“I’m so looking forward to more self-growth and everything I can do after this: Like go to university and just feel free again… eventually I’m excited to get to the point where this is just a distant memory.”

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