Column

Mental Mettle and Musings: teen tension and back-to-school anxiety

by Arhana Aatresh (’23) | October 11, 2021

Art by Anika Jain (’22)

The return to on-campus instruction for the first time since March 2020 has brought endless challenges, especially surrounding the transition from isolation to constant academic and social engagement. While a sense of normalcy is comforting to many students, others suffer from anxiety in response to the never-ending stimulation. As students adjust to their school routines, scientists and school administrators are voicing concerns about student mental health.

Humans experience anxiety when facing unfamiliar stimuli, which can be a daily occurrence. However, when one experiences a disproportionately high negative emotional response to a minor threat, such anxiety is considered a clinical issue. Anxiety persists in many forms, the most common of which is Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Those with anxiety typically experience higher levels of activity in the brain’s limbic system, comprising areas primarily associated with emotional processing.

Studies have found that due to the prolonged nature of the pandemic, normal anxiety has escalated into anxiety disorders in many youths, resulting in a surge of hospital visits. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), between March and May of 2020, hospitals around the country reported a 31% increase in emergency mental health-related hospital visits in children ages 12 to 17. 

The specific causes of increased anxiety accompanying the transition back to school vary between age groups, with social and academic anxiety especially prevalent amongst teenagers. These levels also vary by demographic, as students in lower socioeconomic situations experience different problems than those with more socioeconomic privilege. 

At unhealthy anxiety levels, heightened emotions can wreak havoc on teenagers’ mental states, interfering with academic performance and social relationships. Additionally, because teenagers feel emotions more intensely than other age groups due to hyperactive amygdalas, intrusive emotions can adversely affect their health and performance.

Beyond the global pandemic, mental health professionals already deal with increased caseloads at the beginning of each school year, according to Dr. Richard Martini, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Utah and Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City. During the start of the 2020-2021 school year, hospital emergency rooms were overrun by high numbers of similar cases as a result of the pandemic’s magnification of this trend.

Society as a whole must be more attentive to the mental health of teenagers to ensure their happiness and well-being; a starting point is spreading awareness of coping mechanisms for intrusive thoughts and anxiety. Support from those who understand why teenagers are experiencing certain emotions is also vital. According to Alyssa Ames-Sikora, a faculty member in the Department of Psychiatry at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons of Columbia University, “teaching our children how to handle anxiety involves helping them learn to tolerate some level of uncertainty and risk.” Communication between parents and their children, as well as widespread access to mental health resources, helps to create safer environments for teenagers. 

More schools and educators are becoming aware of these needs and have been reaching out to mental health professionals, according to Dr. Nicole Christian-Brathwaite, a child and adolescent psychiatrist in Boston. Schools are even adapting traditional five-day weeks to better accommodate students’ health and needs. For instance, Saint Francis has maintained the Flex Day schedule from the 2020-2021 school year, strategically scheduling these days throughout the school year to facilitate student connection and healthy habits.

If every student on campus actively takes a role in this fight and strives to be attuned to the mental health of their peers, our campus will become a more nurturing environment that fosters stability and growth. As the pandemic continues, we must strive to provide those around us with the care and support they need.

Categories: Column, Science

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