COVID-19 challenges emotional well-being of kids and college students

Jennifer Paris is preparing snacks for her two children Peyton, 12, and Cason (left), 10, after they finished their homeworks online at their home in Acworth on Friday, November 13, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Jennifer Paris is preparing snacks for her two children Peyton, 12, and Cason (left), 10, after they finished their homeworks online at their home in Acworth on Friday, November 13, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Even before the coronavirus pandemic began, 12-year-old Peyton Paris battled mild anxiety. The seventh grader’s emotional struggles have intensified since his school, like others in metro Atlanta, turned to virtual learning in March when Georgia issued statewide shelter-in-place orders to help curb the spread of COVID-19.

“Having less time with his teachers is stressful for him,” said Jennifer Paris, 40, Peyton’s mom. “Not to mention he is typically a straight-A student, so he worries a great deal about his grades. He constantly worries about the internet going out or websites not working. He’s afraid he will miss something important and his grades will fall.” Peyton and his younger brother, Cason, a 10-year-old fifth grader, both have spent months learning from home and, in November, began transitioning to some in-person schooling.

The pandemic has upended the lives of young people — from primary school to college — with uncertainty about school and special events and even the loss of loved ones.

After eight months of virtual learning, Mariana Palancares, 13, returned to in-person classes the week of Nov. 9. The decision for the eighth grader to return to Clark Middle School in Athens was one her mom, Lina Van Bennekom, felt was best for her daughter’s overall well-being. Mariana lost her dad at the end of July to COVID-19, after his three-week fight with the virus from a hospital bed at Northside Hospital Gwinnett in Lawrenceville. Mariana, her mom, dad, 24-year-old sister and 75-year-old grandmother all tested positive for the virus. Her dad, a 48-year-old restaurant manager who’d worked in the industry for most of his life, didn’t survive.

Mariana Palancares, 13, poses with a photo of her late father at Suwanee Town Center Park in Suwanee, Georgia, on Sunday, November 16, 2020. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Mariana Palancares, 13, poses with a photo of her late father at Suwanee Town Center Park in Suwanee, Georgia, on Sunday, November 16, 2020. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta J

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta J

An “above-average student,” Mariana started to assess more at “grade level” following her dad’s death, according to her mom. “It’s obvious she can’t concentrate at a computer in her home after all she’s been through,” said Van Bennekom, who was at her husband’s side when he died.

“She’s been through so much. We’ve been in so much pain. She needs a change; she needs some sense of normalcy.”

Until a sense of normalcy returns to life for 18-year-old Kristen Rias, the Spelman College freshman has turned to painting, taking walks near a lake close to her family’s home, listening to music by new artists, engaging in online mental health checks between her and her peers, and piling on plenty of “self-love.” Spelman, along with Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University in Atlanta have held online-only classes this semester.

“We are drained — emotionally drained, mentally drained,” Rias said. “I’m stuck in this room all day; it’s definitely taken a very big toll on me.”

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The toll that COVID-19 has taken on youths and young adults is wide-ranging, say mental health professionals.

“That tentativeness, of there’s nothing really you can count on, really, really triggers anxiety,” said Nance Roy, chief medical officer for the JED Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on protecting the emotional health of and preventing suicide in the nation’s teens and young adults. “The uncertainty of not knowing what’s going to happen is a significant concern for many of them,” Roy added.

“A lot of children, I’ll say, elementary age, are really, really worried and anxious about what’s happening,” said R. Johnson-Verwayne, a licensed clinical psychologist with her own practice, Standard of Care Psychological Services in Atlanta. “Parents don’t have the right words to explain what’s going on with the coronavirus. As parents panic, kids also panic.”

For Paris, the decision to allow her sons to return to school was one aimed at reducing some of the stress and anxiety faced by the family.

“We were receiving a lot of calls while at work from the boys,” who were often very upset over the online system, said Paris, who, with their dad, shares custody of her two sons who attend Palmer Middle School and Baker Elementary School, both in Cobb County. “Sometimes they would be in tears; it was very frustrating because we couldn’t fix it for them. The online system has improved and they have less problems with it now, but it was really bad for a while.”

Jennifer Paris is preparing snacks for her two children Peyton, 12, and Cason, 10, after they finished their homework online at their home in Acworth on Friday, November 13, 2020.  (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
Jennifer Paris is preparing snacks for her two children Peyton, 12, and Cason, 10, after they finished their homework online at their home in Acworth on Friday, November 13, 2020. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Paris shared that her sons’ teachers have been patient and understanding throughout the process.

Adjustment periods, including sudden losses brought on by the pandemic, set in motion additional challenges for many youths and young adults, both Roy and Johnson-Verwayne point out.

“A lot of people have missed significant life events,” said Johnson-Verwayne, “like milestone birthdays and vacations, things they look forward to during the year — graduations, proms, all of these things that culturally we see as important milestones and important things; they’re gone, which means there’s a loss of security and safety. They’re on edge and they are alarmed about even the smallest things because there are so many unknowns.”

Too much screen time from computers and smartphones, along with Zoom fatigue, faced by students having to spend time in virtual-learning experiences, creates a barrage of problems, said Johnson-Verwayne, who is finding this period during the pandemic to be “the most complex psychological situation” she has seen in her career. “I am concerned about the long-term effects that this pandemic will have on our children,” she added. “It will evoke anxiety and depression that would not otherwise have been there.”

A fall 2020 survey by Washington, D.C.-based Active Minds found that many students have already experienced stress, anxiety or other mental health challenges since the COVID-19 pandemic began. More than 2,000 respondents participated in the survey by the nonprofit organization that supports mental health awareness and education for students, with 87% expressing that they’ve experienced stress or anxiety. Another 60% indicated they’d experienced an increase in depression. More than 77% felt lonely or isolated.

Of the survey, Roy said, “A lot of students reported concern with just the uncertainty of things: Where are they going to go back to school? When are they going to go back to school? When’s this going to end? Is there going to be a vaccine?

They don’t know from week to week if they’re going to have to go back home.”

Additionally, she said inconsistent messages have made for more stress. “A lot of students reported feeling anxious and angry over inadequate or contradictory information that they were getting from their schools. One day it might be this; the next day it was something else — not necessarily to the fault of the schools. It’s just things were ever-changing and evolving so there’s nothing really to count on.”

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Add to that sudden campus evacuations for some college students, said Dr. Rachel Conrad, who practices child and adolescent psychiatry at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and is an instructor in the Harvard Medical School Department of Psychiatry.

“When we looked at how many days students had to move off campus, many students had fewer than three days to move off campus. The fewer days the students had, the more likely they were to have persistent mental health symptoms,” said Conrad, who largely works with young adults ages 18 to 26.

This reality presented a bigger dilemma for students who counted on receiving mental health services on campus, Conrad said, particularly for those who found they’d now “have to go across state lines, so when they’re evacuated they may lose access to mental health services during that evacuation.”

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“Some students are moving back into hostile or unstable home environments,” she added, “where families don’t necessarily understand their academic demands, so they’re trying to do college from a home environment where people aren’t recognizing their academic demands and are constantly interrupting them or disrupting their work.”

Conrad believes a solution could lie in allowing practitioners to practice across state lines.

Mental health care in the form of virtual therapy sessions is helping Mariana Palancares and her family to heal from the death of her father.

Mariana, her mom and her sister haven’t had a full night’s rest since her father died, her mom shared.

Lina Palancares, 24, Lina Van Bennekom, 46, and Mariana Palancares, 13, walk around Suwanee Town Center Park in Suwanee, Georgia, on Sunday, November 16, 2020. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)
Lina Palancares, 24, Lina Van Bennekom, 46, and Mariana Palancares, 13, walk around Suwanee Town Center Park in Suwanee, Georgia, on Sunday, November 16, 2020. (Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta J

Credit: Rebecca Wright for the Atlanta J

Fortunately, Mariana now has the right fit with a therapist after a prior unsuccessful experience.

“Mariana has been struggling acknowledging her pain,” said her mom. “She pushes it down deep and tries to ignore it because she doesn’t understand how to handle it.” To help with this, Mariana meditates, practices yoga and takes melatonin to help her sleep.

Socially, her mom added, she’s also struggled with some friendships with those who seem to be distancing “themselves from her,” said Van Bennekom. “I’ve tried to explain that if knowing what to say to a grieving person is hard for an adult, it must be impossible for a child. The added pain of not being able to see close friends or hug anybody is not making things easier.”

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Van Bennekom, who is Mexican American, notes the virus has been especially hard on communities of color. “It’s affecting minorities because most of the time minorities have jobs where they can’t work from home. You have to get out there and you have to work,” she said.

To help with her mental health, Rias, who’s attending Spelman on a full scholarship, has started doing more “free painting” on canvases using bright colors from acrylic paint. She also spends time with her Maltese-poodle mix dog, Cody. The 18-year-old political science major has been learning online since March, when her then-high school, North Springs Charter High School, went virtual. These days to help her cope, she takes part in Zoom sessions at night with some of her peers.

Kristen Rias, a freshman at Spelman, has taken up painting and other self-care activities to preserve her mental health during the coronavirus pandemic. (Ben Gray / For the AJC)
Kristen Rias, a freshman at Spelman, has taken up painting and other self-care activities to preserve her mental health during the coronavirus pandemic. (Ben Gray / For the AJC)

Credit: Ben Gray

Credit: Ben Gray

Rias, who completed her first semester at Spelman from the Union City home she lives in with her mom, said she works “to focus on the good of all of this instead of focusing on what we’re missing out on. … I’m just giving myself credit anywhere possible.”

That approach falls in line with advice that Johnson-Verwayne passes on to her young patients — to “focus on the things that are going well, focus on what we do have. The way to survive is to take one day at a time” while also being sure to “double-down on self-care and gratitude.”

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