Until the COVID-19 pandemic hit, high school student Gema Sanchez Gamez was always on the move. She was often up at 5:30 am to catch a ride to school, had a full schedule of classes during the day, and then after school would help her Spanish-speaking parents with paperwork or translating emails. Underneath it all, she was struggling with her recovery from an eating disorder.
Then everything came to a standstill.
“I had no freedom, I had no stability, so I felt motivation slowly fading away,” she said.
Her days began to blend together. Classes were attended in bed, while the clubs that used to structure their days were gone. With those changes came uncertainty, loneliness and fear. That summer, her grandmother died of COVID-19.
Two years on, the difficulty of that period feels strong. But she also sees the past two years as a chance to slow down, breathe and assess how to live in the world.
“I had to learn to sit with my thoughts, which was hard,” Gamez said. “I was thinking about, like, how I would have wanted to have more time with her and how I could still live a life that she’d be proud of on my own.”
Gamez, like thousands of students across Arizona, had their daily life abruptly thrown off during the pandemic. The majority of students were forced into remote learning with little understanding of what it would look like or how long it would continue. As they struggled to engage with their new day-to-day life, their families faced economic uncertainty, illness and even death.
Today, the mental health toll of those years continues to linger, even with students back in classrooms. In October, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a mental health emergency for children and adolescents, citing rising rates of depression, anxiety and trauma among young people. And a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey published this spring found that nearly half of the students surveyed had shown persistent feelings of hopelessness for the year before the survey date.
But many students are also having more open conversations about mental health and the important role it plays in their life.
Adithi Nythruva, a junior at Perry High School in Gilbert, knows her mental health got worse during the pandemic. And while she’s managing it, she feels the effects.
“I’m trying to motivate myself, but it’s super hard,” she said. “This isn’t the high school experience I wanted.”
These students also criticize how adults understand their struggles — what is read as procrastination may be depression, or lethargy may be a lack of hope.
Carlos Miller, a Mesa student who graduated from Sequoia Charter School in 2021 after a mostly remote school year, said he thinks many adults make assumptions.
“You’re eating, you’re moving around the house, drinking water, all of that stuff. Oh, they must be fine,” he said. “But they don’t realize when you get in your room, you’re completely devoid of human interaction. You’re in your bed and doing nothing.”
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Inconsistent resources in Arizona schools
Just as Arizona school districts must figure out their own plan for building upgrades or hiring enough educators, they also mostly have to go it alone on mental health services.
Arizona does not offer dedicated state funding for school counselors. But since 2019, districts have been able to apply for a competitive school-safety grant program that was expanded to include social workers and counselors. Demand for that program outpaced state funds, leaving schools on a waiting list. Then in 2021, State Superintendent Kathy Hoffman’s office invested another $21 million in pandemic relief funds in the effort to help schools on that waiting list hire social workers and counselors.
The department also offers classroom teachers and community organizations access to a social-emotional classroom management training through the instructional program PAX Good Behavior Game. Since 2019, the Department of Education says over 4,000 educators and community group members have received the training.
Still, many mental health experts agree that grant-based staff funds and teacher training are not sufficient. Hoffman herself, entreating the legislature to further fund school counselors, has said the same.
“A state that was truly committed to supporting the mental health of students wouldn’t fund these positions through a competitive grant process with wait lists,” she said last year. “It would provide ongoing access to mental-health support for all students.”
Because of the go-it-alone environments, students and staff across the state do not have access to the same mental health resources. In that environment, some schools work with nonprofits or other groups to train staff or bring in outside support for students.
The Committee for Children, an international nonprofit, runs social-emotional programs for K-8 students in 71 school districts in Arizona.
Another mental health-focused nonprofit, Arizona-based Mindfulness First, has worked in the Balsz Elementary School District since 2015 to train staff and students at Crockett Elementary on mindfulness strategies. Those efforts significantly reduced suspension rates at Crockett, where about 95% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch, school officials said.
While services such as counselors or collaborations with Mindfulness First can be funded through grants, it often falls on a district to add them into their bottom line. Mindfulness First’s support services cost around $500 per teacher for virtual training or $1,500 per classroom for in-person training.
Meanwhile, some students have found community in organizing groups. Gamez is part of Aliento, a youth-led community organization for first-generation immigrant and Latino students that provides both leadership development and emotional support.
Abigail Jung, her sister, Kristin, and Nythruva, meanwhile, belong to the Arizona Asian American Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders (AZ AANHPI) for Equity, which has held mental health-based virtual meet-ups and brought students together to create plays and art that empowers them to understand their Asian American experience in Arizona.
“It was a really supportive group,” Abigail Jung, a sophomore at University High School in the Tucson Unified School District, said. “I don’t have that many Asian American friends, so they don’t really understand the mental state you would be in seeing all those hate crimes on social media and the news. Being able to talk to others about how they felt was really empowering to me.”
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Confusing feelings about school
The return to in-person classes brought out a new range of confusing feelings for some students.
On one hand, they describe the excitement of being back to in-person learning: seeing friends, going to after-school activities and even just feeling more motivated to listen in class. The CDC survey published this month found students who felt close to people at school were less likely to feel sad or hopeless.
“I definitely struggled academically during my sophomore year,” Nythruva said. “In person was a lot better than online because online, I seriously could not pay attention at all.”
But some things had changed. A space that used to be about learning and connecting with friends was also the locus of a public health concern. Students worry about whether to wear face masks or not and about bringing the coronavirus home to their families.
“I’m trying not to feel fear after everything. That’s so hard,” Gamez said. “And just, like, knowing how to play again and like allowing myself to play again.”
For Odessa Graham and Ali Steinmetz, fifth graders at Cochise Elementary in the Scottsdale Unified School District, their COVID-19 concerns earlier this year meant trying to avoid sitting next to students who were not wearing face masks, even though their teachers incorrectly assumed they were just trying to sit near their friends.
“Like, if it wasn’t already hard to find good friends, it makes it even harder to actually find a select few that wear masks all the time,” Graham said.
A new focus on mental health
Carlos Miller holds on to the new approach to mental health that he developed over the past two years: being more open, asking his friends how they are doing and listening to their answers closely.
But that skill came to him, in part, through tragedy. His best friend took his own life in the summer of 2020.
“Mental health is a serious topic that people really shouldn’t be afraid to talk about. It’s almost like a taboo subject,” Miller said. “Sometimes you’re by yourself. And all you can do is in your own mind, so you have to nurture that place, you can’t let it deteriorate. And make sure you check up on the people you care about.”
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Daily life looks different, in both big and small ways, than all of the students may have expected two years ago.
Kristin Jung, a senior in Tuscon, was able to step away from spending time with a group of friends she didn’t really enjoy being around. She and her sister, Abigail, both introverts, became closer because they were home more.
“The pandemic gave me the courage to really act on those boundaries,” she said.
And Nythruva has changed her expectations for the future.
“I don’t expect anything for myself. I just kind of work until something pops up. If something good happens, something good happens,” she said. “And if it doesn’t, well, you know, I just kind of try to move on with my life and focus my energy on another thing.”
Odessa Graham and Ali Steinmetz, the fifth graders, say they are now very aware of how their parents and fellow students share information. From their parents, they want more direct answers. And when fellow students share information that may not be accurate, they feel the need to provide clarity.
“Parents don’t share as much information as they really should,” Steinmetz said.
Graham is much more aware when her mental health is suffering.
“If I’m coping with things in a bad way, I can tell like, ‘Hey, you’re not doing so good.’ Like if I’m just feeling tired and not myself,” she said.
Gamez is more excited about the future than she ever has been, but is also more aware of the innumerable challenges it takes to take care of her mental health and build friendships.
“You’re a human being, you’re not a human doing,” she said. “How are you taking care of you?”
Reach the reporter at email@example.com and follow her on Twitter @yanazure.
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