After the COVID-19 pandemic, 100% of teenagers have now experienced trauma, in comparison to the approximated percentage of 66% prior to 2020. However, contrary to the popular belief among many pediatric therapists, COVID isn’t the only reason behind the observed recent increase in kids with mental health struggles.
I was 12 when the pandemic hit, but before that, I’d been experiencing the effects of the extreme social and academic shifts that occur in middle school. Even back in sixth and seventh grade, my friends and I were so focused on joining every club, earning every volunteer hour, and scoring every extra credit point. I’d see my 11 and 12 year old friends already stressing over their prospective PSAT scores and GPAs, despite neither of those being concerns until at least ninth grade. But then, the pandemic shut down everything, and it started to close around our academically rigorous bubble, increasing the pressure until it hit a bursting point.
By eighth grade, I’d already begun to experience something that many high school sophomores and juniors experience: burnout. That bubble popping made me realize that it didn’t matter so much if I got into every Ivy League and impressed everyone in my community. It didn’t matter if I went to the best school in the country, as long as I learned everything I wanted to learn. I couldn’t keep striving to be the perfect version of myself, the one that everyone around me expected me to be. If I did, I’d lose the person that I wanted to be.
With everything being shut down, the realization sunk in. I finally had time to focus on my mental health. I learned how to make more time for myself and to balance productivity with taking breaks.I took the time to learn so many things, such as calligraphy and knitting. I finally had time to make a dent in my extremely long reading list, and I even started writing a book. I was able to develop crucial soft skills that I wouldn’t have learned at school. But most importantly, I started to develop a balance between myself and everything else around me, and I started to figure out when to prioritize myself and when to prioritize work and other people in my life. If I’m being completely honest, I thoroughly enjoyed quarantine. I learned so much about myself and my family during the six month period where I was free of my rigorous extracurricular schedule.
But I felt like all of the walls I’d started to rebuild during COVID were demolished again by the stressors that came rushing at me when school started. I got so used to being able to slow down that I wasn’t ready for the overstimulating environment commonly known as public school. The COVID lockdown period had given me time to take care of myself, but school had effectively destroyed months of meticulous self care in a matter of weeks. I felt the stress catch up to me, and I think around this time, everything that had been going on in my brain that I’d tried to suppress for so many years began to overflow. I couldn’t ignore the anxiety that I’d been dealing with for years, so after my next yearly checkup, I answered the questions on my mental health form honestly. My pediatrician told my parents that I needed to go to therapy.
My first therapist told me I’d only need a few sessions to talk about COVID and its effect on me. What does that have to do with anything? I thought. I genuinely enjoyed COVID. So that’s what I told her. I’ll never forget the wide-eyed look on her face when I rambled about all of the knitting projects I’d finished, the short stories and half-finished novels I wrote, and all the books I finally checked off of my seemingly never-ending reading list.
“So then where’s your anxiety coming from?” she asked, looking genuinely puzzled. I wasn’t sure what exactly she meant by that. I felt like I’d always had it, but I thought it was normal, something that everyone dealt with. I couldn’t figure it out at first. It took me until my freshman year of high school to pinpoint an exact stressor for me: the expectations that were set for me by the people I was surrounded by, which led me to set impossibly high standards for myself. For me, most of my anxiety stemmed from the inevitable disappointment I’d cause everyone around me when I wouldn’t be able to meet them. The reason I’d felt so happy during COVID was because I wasn’t doing anything that made me feel like I had to work super hard and break my back over. I got to spend months solely on what I wanted to do. The burnout I’d started to experience had taken hold, but since I had so much time, I didn’t feel its effects as much.
I do acknowledge that I was lucky during the pandemic, and I’m very fortunate to have been supported by my family and that I didn’t have to worry about having a roof over my head or having enough food and resources to survive. I was able to spend a lot more time with my family, and I got to reconnect with some extended family members that I otherwise would’ve never had time to even call because of the time difference. I thoroughly enjoyed not having to worry about homework and extracurriculars for a while, and although I did feel isolated from time to time, I was able to use my time to learn new skills and focus on hobbies. I can say that COVID was a healing time for me because I had so much more time to focus on myself, the people I care about, and my values outside of my education and my future, and although I was worried about my friends and family who were at risk of debilitating reactions to COVID, I was lucky enough to not experience the loss of a loved one.
But I do think that one of the main reasons people around my age who had similar experiences during the pandemic say it was so terrible is because of the jolt we all felt after having to return to our normal routines as though nothing had happened. Especially because the pandemic took place during such a formative time in our lives. School especially was really difficult at first. Not only did we not know what we were doing, but the teachers weren’t prepared for the pandemic any more than we were. And entering high school right after the pandemic, when I had to spend a significantly smaller amount of time on schoolwork and didn’t experience peer-to-peer interaction, was jarring. Having to navigate a new building, relearn how to interact with other students, get used to an entirely new level of rigor from honors and AP classes, and just returning to normal, hectic, often overscheduled life was exhausting. It took me a while to adjust, and sometimes, I don’t think I completely have yet. But what helps me is trying to remember the slower pace of life that came with COVID lockdown, and the realizations I came to during that time. I remind myself that it’s okay to not be a machine, it’s okay to pause your tasks to take some time to yourself; it’s okay to put yourself before others. I remind myself that I don’t have to live up to everyone’s expectations, I simply have to try my best to do what I love, and find my own defined path in life.