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‘They’re barely hanging on’: Teenagers reflect on mental health amid COVID-19 pandemic

Click to play video: 'Teens speak out about mental health toll of COVID-19 pandemic' Teens speak out about mental health toll of COVID-19 pandemic
WATCH ABOVE: In part two of a series on teens and mental health, Caryn Lieberman speaks with high school students about their experiences during the pandemic – Jun 2, 2021

Like many other students in Ontario, 18-year-old Nabila Khandaker will be graduating from C. W. Jeffery’s Collegiate Institute in Toronto later this month after spending much of her final year of high school at home because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“One thing that definitely stresses me out is not having the access to knowledge about universities and colleges that you get while you’re in school … we just get emails full of information and it’s all coming at us at once,” she said.

Khandaker was looking forward to many milestones this year, she said, “like graduation, commencement, prom and those things I’m not going to get to experience.”

Now, as she prepares for the next stage of her education, Khandaker said she feels worried she won’t be emotionally ready.

Read more: COVID-19: Toronto mother opens up about teen daughter’s mental health struggle amid pandemic

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“It makes me feel really overwhelmed that I don’t know what’s going on and I might not feel prepared to get into my first year of university,” she added.

Another student at C. W. Jeffery’s Collegiate Institute, 17-year-old Azwa Farhan in Grade 11, said she also feels “stressed” during the pandemic and misses seeing her friends.

“Usually as a teenager, you go out a lot and you see your friends a lot and you have fun and COVID has really stopped all that kind of stuff,” she said.

“You’re watching the news every day and you’re seeing things shut down and you can’t go out with your friends anymore.”

Farhan said she is hopeful by next year, she will get to experience what others who are graduating this month are missing. But in the meantime, she acknowledged she too is feeling the impact of the pandemic on her mental health.

“You get to see friends every day when you go to school and that’s really changed because of COVID, you go a month without seeing your friends and then on top of that, the workload for school is a lot,” she said.

Farhan and Khandaker have found comfort in a mental health initiative, called Jack Chapters, through their high school.

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Read more: Ontario government spending $31M more for children, youth mental health services

On its website, Jack.org describes Jack Chapters as “groups of young people working year-round to identify and dismantle barriers to positive mental health in their communities. Young advocates can start chapters at high schools, post-secondary campuses, or anywhere else that youth gather.”

“Jack Chapters is definitely a space where I can be more of myself and just be open and let my peers know about my thoughts and just share tips and techniques on how to get through this pandemic,” said Khandaker.

“Jack chapter meetings are the best they’re always so much fun … it takes down the stress level,” added Farhan.

Click to play video: 'Helping families navigate teens’ mental health struggles' Helping families navigate teens’ mental health struggles
Helping families navigate teens’ mental health struggles – Jun 3, 2021

For 18-year-old Max Ecker, who will be graduating from high school this month and beginning university in the fall, he said not seeing his friends has been the greatest struggle.

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“I went from seeing them every day because we go to camp, we play hockey together, we go to school together to not seeing them at all. It really isolates you,” Ecker said.

Read more: ‘It’s going to take time’: Navigating post-pandemic anxiety

Like other students across Ontario, Ecker spends his days studying and attending class online in his bedroom.

“You spend so many hours in your room during school … through the pandemic, people haven’t really been talking to their friends as much or had enough interaction with them to the point where they kind of drifted and it’s sad because I have the best memories with my friend group,” he said.

“We have seen teens have challenges with disruptions in their continuity at school, with being able to connect with peers, with being able to access these really important social events or rites of passage, like graduations, proms or formals, sporting events. And I think those are things that have left teens grieving,”  explained developmental pediatrician Dr. Ripudaman Minhas of St. Michael’s Hospital and Unity Health Toronto.

“There are more concerns and more features we’re seeing of things like anxiety and depression, substance use and eating disorders as well.”

Ripudaman said teens living in hot zones with high COVID-19 case counts may be struggling the most.

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Read more: More than half of Canadians anxious about return to ‘normal’ after COVID-19: survey

“When we think about the challenges that teens overall are facing right now, these are further compounded for teens that are experiencing marginalization or stigmatization in different ways. And that might be related to race. It may be related to socioeconomic status or even I’m hearing from my patients that have disabilities as well,” he pointed out.

“When we think about the the mental health stresses and the day to day stresses that exacerbate mental health concerns, it it is very different for different communities … we’re seeing that teens are worrying about parents who might be essential workers, parents or grandparents who might be impacted by COVID either here or overseas.”

Social worker Shay Johnson, who works at a pediatric ambulatory clinic of St. Michael’s Hospital, has also seen the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on teens and their families.

“I think that the experiences of youth and teens have been largely overlooked because they’re in the background and the teens who are for the first time experiencing a global pandemic have just kind of been expected to step up and just deal with it,” she said.

“A lot of these teens, in my experience that I’ve been working with … they’re barely hanging on.”

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Read more: Stressed about returning to ‘normal’ life after COVID-19? Experts share tips to cope

Johnson said she is most worried for the teens who appear to be doing OK because they may need help too.

“A lot of kids who have had mental health struggles before the pandemic know those conversations and have those connections. I think it’s the teens who are seeing the burden taken on by their loved ones and not wanting to be that further burden and they’re just bottling it up and dealing with it but I think it’s going to come out in some form or another eventually,” she said.

Johnson said she tells her patients often, “it’s OK not to be OK,” and that expecting children and youth to be resilient may be causing them even more pressure.

“To make that assumption I think can be quite harmful if you’re telling it to someone who is barely holding it together,” she said.

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