How Students’ Mental Health is Changing in 2020 by Sarah Sallee

‘Practice makes perfect permanent.’

When you are little, the smallest things can hold the utmost importance to you: a favorite doll, grandma’s chocolate chip cookies, the movie you watch every Sunday night with mom. In 2020, people are grasping for the things they love as the story of 2020 shifts and shapes into that of a year which hopefully, one day, will be reported as one when the world was resilient and found how to unite together once again to overcome adversity. However, how are the students of the world not just coping but finding ways to have fun and carry on their daily lives in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially when many schools, including Santa Catalina, continue distance learning? 

Dr. Steven Adelsheim, of Stanford Psychiatry Center for Youth Mental Health and Wellbeing,  and Rachel Hults, of The National Center for Youth Law, say that now, “more than ever, we must prioritize the mental health and wellbeing of children” (Adelsheim & Hults, 2020). Studies show that exercise, familiar routines, and regular socialization all play vital foundational roles in the growth and development of children. Below, I have broken down the data regarding the United States’ most recent studies on mental health, foundational steps that positively impact students’ mental health, and how members of the Catalina community are working to support one another through new virtual spaces that strengthen the bonds of the school environment.

The Status of Students’ Mental Health

According to a recent study published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in June, the mental health of a tested group of 5,412 persons demonstrated an alarming, but unsurprising, drop in mental health, an approximation of the nation’s current mental health status. The CDC reported that “40.0% of respondents reported at least one adverse mental or behavioral health condition, including symptoms of anxiety disorder or depressive disorder (30.9%) [and] symptoms of a trauma- and stressor-related disorder (TSRD) related to the pandemic (26.3%)” (Czeisler et al., 2020, para. 1). Students’ anxiety levels have risen as they form new daily routines while practicing social distancing and adjusting to different forms of distance learning for the beginning of the school year. While data suggest that children are especially capable of adapting in response to new situations, Stanford Medical reminds its audience:

We must not lose sight of the fact that the period from age 12 to 25 remains a critical time of brain development and maturation. Both the experiences our young people face now and the support they receive from us in coping with and navigating these challenges will have profound impacts on their abilities to be successful adults, parents, and citizens for years to come. By making the investment of support, commitment, and care for our youth right now, we will be building the foundation for a hopeful and viable future (Adelsheim & Hults, 2020, para. 14).

How can students and their larger communities be supported on an individual and collective level? Dr. Adelsheim and Ms. Hults assert that by educating youth on the influential benefits of nurturing their growth and development, students will be able to adapt to a new understanding of the importance of taking care of one’s mental health. While studies have highlighted the importance of promoting care for mental health, below are five of the most influential practices that can be added to one’s daily routine in order to support their mental and physical wellbeing.

Five Strategies For Practicing Self-Care

  1. Practice Mindfulness: “Your strongest muscle and worst enemy is your mind. Train it well.” – Anonymous
  1. Try Breathing Exercises: One Johns Hopkins article breaks down three strategies for reducing stress, including a three minute video walking viewers through deep breathing exercises!
  1. Practice Physical Exercise: This Johns Hopkins article focuses on the benefits of yoga in everyday life! 
  1. Practice Healthy Eating: Eat smart! An apple a day keeps the doctor away, and a sweet treat every now and then helps life feel more upbeat! Studies show that you do not have to have the most perfect, refined food plan to be a healthy eater! “If you don’t take care of your body, where are you going to live?” – Anonymous
  1. Maintain a Regular Sleep Routine! “Sleep is the best meditation” – Dalai Lama

How Santa Catalina Students are Staying Connected

In spite of wind, rain, or shine – or a worldwide pandemic – Santa Catalina’s community has been working diligently over the summer to redefine new ways to maintain their sense of togetherness. As a new school year begins, faculty and staff, along with some of our student leaders, have helped ensure that either in-person or in the virtual format, Catalina continues to find ways to gather together. Through regular weekly assemblies and engaging activities led by our student-elected Activities Coordinator, students have been able to regain a sense of community outside of academic meetings, along with regaining a sense of the bonds shared between teammates and castmates in Catalina’s reimagined sports and theatre programs. In addition, teachers have taken turns leading regular “Wind Downs” to signify the closing of the Zoom school day where students can gather together and take a moment to center themselves before signing off. The daily “Wind Downs” change regularly, with some days having a focus on meditation and breathing exercises, others on journaling, and still others on fast-paced workouts or dance parties. 

Additionally, thanks to the lovely Health and Wellness Committee, led by Ms. Hulme and students from different grades, the Upper School has also continued its new, annual celebration of the “Weeks of Wellcome,” as each week, a student committee member introduces a different topic of discussion regarding mental and physical wellbeing. 

Unfortunately, these days it takes more than some convincing studies for a student, or anyone for that matter, to put away their homework, turn off their favorite Netflix show, and choose to make time for her mental and physical wellbeing. While the process can feel daunting at times, those looking to establish personalized healthy habits do not have to go through the process alone. With the return of virtual schooling, students are learning and rediscovering how to remain emotionally, mentally, and spiritually connected with their classmates and the world around them while adapting to this new school setting. As the year progresses, the call for collecting more resources and encouraging open conversations on mental health has increased tenfold along with a re-evaluation of how present generations currently communicate and form bonds with their peers. Moving forward, the increase of resources and tools accessible for students will remain vital in helping form another foundational pillar in this school year’s virtual environment. First, though, students will have to choose to take a breath, click that Zoom link, and join their friends in this new age of learning.

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