Do the math: distance learning + lockdown = increased student mental health concerns.   

Most students in the country have had a substitute teacher since last March — it’s called distance learning.

Bringing the teacher and classroom to students via laptop computers is, out of necessity, the front running model in pandemic-era education. But it has not been good for kids.

Disengagement in learning, lack of supervision, distractions in the home, and “Zoom Fatigue” are all contributing to a marginal education at best.  But what should be the scariest concern of all is the impact distance learning is having on the mental health of our young people.

“Keeping kids engaged and doing school work at home was something we always expected would be difficult,” said Brainerd High School counselor and author Jeff Howard. “But what I didn’t see coming was how devastating this was going to be to our kids emotionally. If you think about it, we have removed this most social age group of all from their friends and sequestered them in their homes. Of course they are going to feel lonely, disconnected, and worried.”

When a child or teenager feels anxious about their world being turned upside down, it can be a quick slide to full-blown depression and anxiety. School officials say it’s a common story. First, a child or teenager is abruptly taken out of school and is expected to learn via some sort of device. Kids may be savvy with technology but that doesn’t mean they quickly master different learning apps and online platforms. By the time they figure things out, they may be several homework assignments behind and ill-prepared for a quiz or test scheduled the next day. Within a mere week, or two, many students have found themselves behind in classes, not only looking at make-up work but a new lesson every day from multiple teachers. Suddenly their minds become fertile ground for anxiety, hopelessness, and ensuing depression.

Howard, who has been a front row witness to adolescents and their emotional challenges for nearly 20 years, recently released a young adult novel, “Screw You, Van Gogh,” that gives teens a different way of looking at their own mental health.

“This rise in adolescent mental health disorders should have us more worried than it does,” continued Howard. “In my years as a school counselor, the number of students who came to me to say they feel dangerously depressed or anxious, even before COVID, had increased dramatically. Now with distance learning it is even getting worse and affecting students in unexpected ways.”

One unforeseen impact is how stay-at-home learning affects even the most ambitious students. According to Howard, students who are vying for acceptance in elite colleges are taking this particularly hard. “Going to class, earning top grades in college-level courses, thriving in a classroom environment … it’s what they do. And when that’s taken away from them, they are at a loss. They can feel like their whole life and future are falling apart. Last spring I was email counseling more students with high GPAs than any other group.``

Another example of the fallout of distance learning is how it affects an entire family and beyond. Parents have found themselves having to alter their lives to stay at home to supervise their children and even become tutors. Frustrations at what seems to be their child’s apathy or lack of efforts often result in arguments and family strife that can permeate an entire home. Parents, in turn, take those frustrations to work, creating a vicious back-and-forth cycle that keeps feeding itself.

Howard believes that parents needn’t sit back and simply wait for an end to the pandemic and the return to school. There are things that can help now. “As a parent myself I know it is hard to not come down on our kids when we believe they are being lazy or not trying at school. But do your best to not become angry at your child over distance learning; it only makes a difficult situation worse. There’s nothing wrong with stern reminders, expectations, and even removal of privileges; kids understand those things, but do not go to war with them.

“Your kids need your support and parental compassion. Talk to them calmly, emotion-free, about what is going on. Help them know that what seems like a big dark cloud is often nothing more than making up a few assignments and redirecting themselves. To kids, a small thing can seem big and overwhelming.”

Parents should remember, too, that just because a child or teenager is feeling depressed and anxious doesn’t mean they have a mental disorder. Essentially all people experience sadness or despair when they feel their lives are out of order. When the time comes that kids return to school and their lives go back to what they are used to, most will feel better.

“I have a lot of faith in our kids today. This has been really hard on them, but we can have a lot of hope that most of these students who are struggling will not have persistent anxiousness or depressive feelings,” concluded Howard. “I would like to think they just need to get back to what they are used to. Kids are resilient, and given a chance they will be fine. We just hope that can happen as quickly as possible.”

Jeff Howard is a veteran school counselor at Brainerd High School in Brainerd, MN. The continual rise in adolescent mental health disorders has been particularly alarming to Howard who advocates through his writing and conference talks that we need to look at these issues differently. He recently released a new young adult novel Screw You Van Gogh that looks at relationships, depression, family dysfunction, and the choice to live through the eyes of teenagers and how courage and hope can make all the difference.

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