Despite ‘close-to-normal’ school year, mental health fallout from pandemic remains

Despite ‘close-to-normal’ school year, experts say mental health fallout from pandemic remains
Published: Aug. 26, 2022 at 12:44 PM HST|Updated: Aug. 26, 2022 at 4:38 PM HST
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HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Dean Sison, a ninth grader at Campbell High School, is ready to attend homecoming. That is, after he plans it with his class council.

“I really like when we as a school come together to make an end product,” Sison said.

The freshman said marching band performances — something he’s also really looking forward to — are a great example. “You have like your own sections and they’ll practice something that will sound great,” Sison said.

“It’s just like a night that we can share together and I’m really excited about that.”

Like Sison, many students have high expectations for the new school year. They say it’s the closest to “normal” in nearly two years ― with COVID regulations at a minimum and masks optional.

But close to normal doesn’t mean normal.

Mental health experts say the fallout of the pandemic is still very real for students, driving up stress and anxiety.

In many ways, they say, it’s an epidemic ― and one that has yet to be addressed.

“We watched the rates rise and rise and rise until at the peak of the pandemic,” said Hawaii Marriage and Family Therapist Britt Young.

“We were looking at about a 20% to 50% increase in the rates of anxiety and depression among youth and adolescents.”

At a breaking point

The situation is so worrisome that U.S Surgeon General Vivek Murthy recently delivered a call to action, saying alarming spikes in anxiety and depression among youth can’t be ignored.

Experts said mental health needs weren’t being met before the pandemic.

Now, they’re at a breaking point.

“When you put yourself in a fight or flight mode for many years … then you just have a constant and consistent state of agitation and a constant, inconsistent state of anxiety,” said Young. “And that’s really concerning because the longer you stay up in an agitated state of mind, the harder it is to come down.”

Nationally, addressing the mental health crisis was just the first step toward recovery.

“The future wellbeing of our country depends on how we support and invest in the next generation,” said Murthy, in his advisory.

Just last month, the federal government launched the new mental health crisis line 988 to make services more accessible and easier to access during times of emotional distress.

The importance of managing stress

State Health Department figures from 2020 found nearly 11,000 Hawaii youth have experienced at least one major depressive episode.

Of those who did experience a major depressive episode, more than half didn’t get mental health services.

Dr. Scott Shimabukuro, the acting administrator for DOH’s Child and Adolescent Mental Health Division, said children in Hawaii have suffered from the stress and isolation imposed on them during the pandemic.

Dr. Alexander Malik Khaddouma, a psychologist at the UH-Manoa counseling center, said the pandemic’s disruptions to learning and cancellations of meaningful events have left many feeling lonely and isolated.

“These disruptions may affect how they feel about themselves, the future, and their security in the present.”

Mental health experts say students report feeling overwhelmed, burnt out, depressed or anxious.

“Burnout is defined as a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress,” Khaddouma said. “It is important for students to find ways to maintain their physical and emotional health while engaging in their studies, as this will help to reduce the risk of ‘burning out.’”

‘A second to breathe’

So what should students do to maintain their mental health throughout the school year?

The answer is simple — manage your stress.

Students at Campbell High’s freshman council recently talked through what they do to tackle stressful moments.

“I have to take like a second to just breathe,” said ninth grader Lily Tate.

“I usually just take a break and do something that I really love, like hobbies,” added freshman Angel-Hope Laguitan.

Laguitan’s classmate Evette Alacar said she does things that relax her, like having a sip of water. Another classmate Ellyana Guzman agreed, saying she listens to music or ends up taking a nap.

“Definitely be patient with yourself because it’s change,” Tate said. “It’s natural for you to be stressed and worried, but you just need to be patient with yourself and recognize that.”

Mental health advocates expressed the same sentiment.

Young said that doing something as simple as “square breathing” ― breathing in, holding your breath, breathing out, and doing it all over again ― can do a whole lot to help your body get through overwhelming moments.

Tips for staying balanced

UH-Manoa mental health counselors offered this advice to students as they kick off the new school year:

Stay organized
  • Students may find it easier to adjust to the school year if they develop a reliable system for staying organized, including keeping a calendar of upcoming deadlines and plans, making effective “to do” lists to prioritize tasks, and keeping a record of their course materials, such as syllabi and handouts.
Schedule time for self-care
  • Even though the summer is ending, students can benefit from prioritizing self-care as they begin a new school year. Schedule time to engage in activities you enjoy, such as exercise, social events, and hobbies so that you can start the year off on a positive note.
Find enjoyment in new opportunities
  • Students may benefit from seeking opportunities to participate in the campus community, such as through student organizations, athletics, or volunteering. Often these activities can help students feel more connected to their peers, their institution, and to themselves. These activities can also help students meet others and learn about opportunities they may not have previously considered.
Seek connection
  • The pandemic caused significant challenges for students looking to make friends and meet peers. However, it is critically important for students to feel that they have the social support they need to be successful. Take advantage of school-sponsored events, such as resource fairs and campus activities, that can help connect you with others. It’s also important to maintain support from your current relationships, such as with trusted family members and close friends as you begin a new school year. Keep in touch with the people you care about.
Seek support when needed
  • Most universities have a counseling center that is fully dedicated to serving the mental healthcare needs of students. It’s important to learn about these resources and reach out for help when needed. Students concerned about their mental health or wellbeing are encouraged to reach out to trusted sources of support, and seek help from a qualified mental healthcare professional.

To learn more about school-based wellbeing and mental health support and services, reach out to your school’s main office. If in crisis, don’t hesitate to reach out to:

  • Crisis Text Line by texting ALOHA to 741741
  • Hawai’i CARES at 808-832-3100 (O’ahu)
  • Or call 988.