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4 high school students talk mental health and how the pandemic changed them

Photo collage by LA Johnson/NPR

At this point in the pandemic, American teens have spent a significant chunk of their formative years isolated from friends and in fractured learning environments. More than 2 in 5 teens have reported persistently feeling sad or hopeless, according to a new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey of high school students. Many who were already struggling with trauma or mental health problems before the pandemic were deeply affected by the prolonged isolation.

But young people have also shown grace and resilience as they dealt with the challenges of COVID-19. NPR spoke to four high school students who marked the pandemic's two year anniversary with a newfound sense of self, and big dreams for the future.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (en español: 1-888-628-9454; deaf and hard of hearing: 1-800-799-4889) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

Ruby, 17: "I left a toxic friendship, I explored myself more."

By the time the pandemic closed her school in March 2020, Ruby had already spent weeks trying to ignore her mom's warnings about COVID-19. Her mom is Chinese, and their relatives back in China had been updating her on the virus' spread since its early days. Ruby says when her spring break got extended, her mom told her: "Oh yeah, you won't be going back to school anytime soon."

At first, remote learning heightened a lot of the anxieties Ruby already felt about her Minnetonka, Minn. high school. She transferred there in the fall of 2019 and was struggling to feel like she fit in because many of her new classmates came from wealthier families. NPR isn't using Ruby's last name to protect her privacy.

"It was just something I was worrying about constantly," she said. "I was afraid to even move in class. I was just, like, sitting there, and I did not move because I was so anxious about what they were thinking about me."

When school went online, Ruby, then a freshman, was self-conscious about showing her house on camera. She also had a hard time finding a quiet place to concentrate as her two siblings also switched to remote learning – she would often lose focus during Zoom class. During remote school, she says, "I didn't learn anything."

Ruby wasn't the only one. In the first several months of the pandemic, two-thirds of U.S. students in grades nine through 12 told the CDC reported difficulty completing their schoolwork.

LA Johnson / NPR

One upside to remote school was that it put some distance between Ruby and a friendship that she describes as toxic.

"She was the only person I really knew, so I kind of felt safe around her," Ruby explains. "But at the same time, I didn't really feel so safe because the people who she hung out with were not my people."

Things changed for the better during Ruby's sophomore year, when her school transitioned to hybrid learning and she decided to leave that friendship. She started to nurture relationships with the three people who are now her best friends.

"I left a toxic friendship, I explored myself more." she says. "I would say [the pandemic] has definitely made me a stronger person."

Teja, 18: "The lack of structure just led to me becoming obsessive."

When her Seattle high school closed in March 2020, Teja's world started to disintegrate. Her jazz choir trip and swim practices were canceled, her clubs were confined to Zoom meetings and her entire life was condensed to her family's home.

Teja, then a sophomore, had been diagnosed with anorexia during her freshman year of high school and when the pandemic hit, she was in recovery. NPR isn't using her last name to protect her privacy around her anorexia.

"School was a huge motivator for me, for... staying on track for recovery because school is something I love. I love to learn. It's really important to me and that was only possible if I was eating," Teja says. "And then all of a sudden school was canceled."

Those early months of the pandemic were extremely destabilizing for Teja, and for other teenaged girls with eating disorders. The CDC found the proportion of emergency room visits for eating disorders increased among adolescent girls in 2020 and 2021.

Teja relapsed, and her family noticed. After a difficult conversation with her dad about how she might have to go to the hospital, Teja called a friend who talked her down. "She was like, 'It's not fair to frighten you, but on the other hand, that is the reality.' "

She says the conversation was a wake-up call.

"I realized the only way I would be happy and have structure is if I created that for myself. So I made a schedule and I set goals," Teja says.

In the summer of 2020, she started going on daily walks with her dog, planning outdoor meetups with friends and writing music on a regular basis – all in addition to regular meetings with her psychiatrist. Eventually, she was healthy enough to attend outdoor swim team practices in nearby Lake Washington.

"It was a lot of fun to be back in the water again and be back with my teammates. So those things kind of helped ground me with why I wanted to continue in recovery."

LA Johnson / NPR

But that grounding didn't last long. When remote learning continued into her junior year, in fall 2020, she says, "I just became really anxious about school in a way that I hadn't really been before."

"I'm very perfectionistic," Teja explains, "and the lack of structure just led to me becoming obsessive."

The things that usually brought her joy, like practicing with the jazz choir, didn't feel the same without her classmates singing by her side. "I think the primary thing was the isolation. There was no one to catch me from spiraling."

"My friends had my parents on speed dial for when I'd have seizures on Zoom."

In the fall of 2020, Teja's anxiety was getting worse. That's when the seizures started – sometimes more than 10 a day. "I couldn't leave the house," she says.

Three weeks after her first seizure, she was diagnosed with a rare neurological disorder called Functional Neurologic Disorder that can be triggered by things like anxiety, stress and trauma.

"That was a really, really hard couple of months because I couldn't do anything. You couldn't see friends without having seizures. My friends had my parents on speed dial for when I'd have seizures on Zoom."

She and her family had to go all the way to Colorado to find treatment in February 2021 – and the treatment helped. She started having fewer seizures, and this past fall, she returned to in-person classes for the first time since the pandemic started. She says being back at school has been strange, but good.

"On my first day of school, my schedule was messed up and I was like, this is such an unusual experience. Like, it's been so long since I've had an issue as small as like, 'Oh, my schedule's wrong.' "

Teja also got to return to some of the activities she loves most. She says getting back to some sense of normalcy has helped her recover from everything she went through during the pandemic.

"I was able to do a live production of Alice in Wonderland. And that, to me, was the first time I was like: It is important that I am here. Like, if I were to get sick and I couldn't be here, it would matter. And that was the first time in my high school experience that I felt that way."

Alex, 16: "I was asking myself, 'Am I a male? I don't look like the typical guy.' "

Pandemic isolation was a mixed bag for Alex, who lives in northern Minnesota.

On the one hand, the isolation worsened a lot of the struggles he was already having around mental health. Alex, now a junior, had been sexually abused in middle school, and was later diagnosed with anxiety, depression and PTSD. NPR isn't using Alex's last name to protect his privacy as a minor.

He hoped being quarantined at home would make him feel safer and less paranoid. But it didn't.

"I kinda just started getting braver. I started expressing what I was feeling."

"Honestly, if anything, it made it worse," he says. He felt trapped, and he constantly worried his abuser would find him.

Sitting at home, Alex had a lot of time to think. He started to look deeper into questions he had about his gender identity. "I was asking myself, 'Am I a male? I don't look like the typical guy. I don't act like the other trans people I see online or in school,' " he recalls.

After months of contemplation, he began identifying as trans masculine.

Then, in spring 2020, at the end of his freshman year, he started seeing a new therapist via telehealth appointments, which he liked better than in-person therapy. He was able to do therapy from the safety of his bed. "You have all your comfort items right there."

It helped him open up in a new way.

"I kinda just started getting braver. I started expressing what I was feeling," he explains.

LA Johnson / NPR

"It was like Jenga. Once one thing fell, everything else started falling. There was just kind of like word vomit."

In the fall of 2020, Alex started his sophomore year in-person, at a new school. "I was basically like, 'Look, it's a new start.' "

He reconnected with an old friend, who quickly became his best friend. "We're at the point where we could just sit in silence and one of us would randomly start laughing, and the other person would know what we're laughing at already," he says. They like to hang out and do each others' makeup – Alex enjoys cosplaying.

But recovery isn't always a straight line. In October 2021, Alex was hospitalized after attempting to take his own life. According to the CDC, in the first several months of the pandemic, 1 in 5 U.S. high school students had seriously considered attempting suicide, and 9% had tried to kill themselves.

Since his hospitalization, Alex has been working with his therapist on finding healthy coping mechanisms for processing his traumas, like "drawing, focusing on schoolwork and getting out into the community more."

Right now, he says he's doing "pretty good. I'm stressed, but I'm a high school student, so that's inevitable. I'm working on my trauma, but trauma processing is all your life. You just learn new ways to cope with it."

Daniela Rivera, 17: "I just lost all motivation"

Daniela Rivera enjoys learning, and she likes being in school – but not so much when she doesn't understand the material, which was what made school during the pandemic so hard for her. In March 2020, Daniela was in her freshman year of high school in Cottonwood, Ariz. At first, her school's remote learning option didn't include live instruction, just packets of optional work – which Daniela didn't do.

That fall, her school began using online lessons from an educational company. Daniela found herself alone in her room, clicking through hours of pre-recorded videos with no actual teacher.

"I've always been a shy, quiet person. But I feel like even now, I'm quieter and shyer than usual."

"I didn't get a lot of things. I gave up completely," Daniela says. "Every day I'd just stay in my bed. I'd wake up...be on school in my bed and just get up to go eat."

Her motivation for schoolwork instantly changed. "I was behind in all my classes. I would play [remote learning] videos...and go out to the living room and talk to my mom while the video is playing. I come in, like, 30 minutes later and the video is still playing. I just lost all motivation."

"[The pandemic] got me into the mindset where, like, I'm just trapped in this house and I can't do nothing. And like, I have stuff I could do outside, but I just felt like I couldn't even open the front door."

According to the CDC, nearly 2 in 5 teens reported experiencing poor mental health during the pandemic. That's something Daniela struggled with, too. In the evenings, she would FaceTime her boyfriend, and they would talk about how the days were starting to blur together.

LA Johnson / NPR

She had a part-time job as a hostess at a restaurant on the weekends, and that job made it hard to maintain her friendships because all her friends worked weekday shifts.

When her school started offering a hybrid option partway through the fall semester of her sophomore year, in 2020, Daniela was excited. But it wasn't the same. Her lessons were still the same pre-recorded videos. She would sit in a classroom all day, separated from other students by a row of desks, with a single teacher to supervise her as she watched from a laptop.

Being back in school didn't make it any easier to keep in touch with her friends – they chose to stay fully online so they could keep their jobs.

"[I'm] definitely sad because they... went from being one of the closest people to me to becoming a stranger. I don't know how they are, I don't know what they're doing, I don't know what's happened in their life."

Things got better as school permanently transitioned back to regular, in-person learning in spring 2021. But returning to business-as-usual has made Daniela realize how much she changed over the pandemic. "I've always been a shy, quiet person. But I feel like even now, I'm quieter and shyer than usual."

She also noticed words don't seem to roll off her tongue as easily as they used to, especially when she's called on in class. "My fear of public speaking has gotten worse in all this because I haven't been, like, speaking out loud to anyone."

One thing she's grateful for: The past two years gave her time and space to get to know herself better. In pandemic isolation, she discovered that she loves to go fishing with her boyfriend, and she's now a big fan of indie music.

"I know who I am now."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Anya Steinberg
[Copyright 2024 NPR]