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Virtual learning leaves impact on mental health

Photo by Sophie Eaton. Art by Rachel Stevens.

The turmoil of this current chunk in time, from the pandemic to the tensions of the upcoming election, prove especially stressful for all young people. Millions of students quickly shifted to virtual learning in March when the COVID-19 pandemic first disrupted life in the United States, and had to adjust their schedules to use sometimes tricky platforms, all while suddenly losing the benefits of having in-person classes and the peers that went along with it. As students adapt to new academic norms, they will also maneuver through an aspect of their lives that intertwines with academics and has implications related to learning from a distance- their mental health. 

According to the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), “mental health is not simply the absence of mental illness but also encompasses social, emotional, and behavioral health and the ability to cope with life’s challenges.” 

The ability to maintain good mental health is important to the success of students in school and in their personal lives, and the implementation of mental health services in schools not only increases the chance of better academic performance, but also makes sense, as young people are typically at school for six to seven hours a day. 

Yet, this need is notoriously unmet within schools. The NASP site included that up to 60% of students don’t receive adequate mental health care because of stigma and lack of services, a need that is exacerbated by the difficulty to receive services in-person due to the complications of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

Howard Adelman, Professor of Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles and co-director of the Center for MH in Schools & Student/Learning Supports at UCLA, leads a weekly thought exchange with co-director Linda Taylor, and others in their community called the School Practitioner Community of Practice. Members of this community are able to share resources for teachers, parents, and students through this exchange, along with an e journal that is also authored by Adelman and Taylor.

“The matters [raised] are a constant focus for our Center,” Adelman said. “We have tried to address them in the resources we send out each week and put online.” 

In one published exchange, which is a compilation of quotes and resources from those who are interested in mental health in schools, an anonymous student shared their reaction to their school’s online instruction and support. They emphasized their frustration with teachers disregarding the boundaries and needs of their students.

I get the feel that if something was going on, you could tell them [teachers] and they would be understanding.”

Liz Sherwin, junior

“Teachers try to address the lack of traditional school by flooding students with work or pushing students to communicate with their classmates about their struggles,” the student said. “Sometimes, the best course of action is to give students autonomy over their mental state by reducing classwork and providing a nurturing environment to offer emotional support when students are ready.”

Junior Liz Sherwin had some perspective about this subject after being in school for a couple of weeks, interacting with teachers and participating in Zoom calls.

“I think some are in tune to the fact that we have other stuff happening [and] crazy home lives so they are flexible with deadlines,” Sherwin said. “But others have high expectations and just keep going like normal. I get the feel that if something was going on, you could tell them and they would be understanding.”

As for how virtual learning is affecting her specifically, Sherwin said she has some things that she needs to figure out how to adjust to. Without the social aspect of school, she has trouble finding a reason to take a break from doing schoolwork for hours at a time. 

“I think it’s been kind of hard because I don’t have the breaks in between class and I don’t have that social aspect, so once I get any assignments in Schoology I tend to just push through them all without giving myself any time to take a break that I would be kind of forced to in school,” Sherwin said. “I just push through them all as much as I can and then at the end of the day I’m like super burnt-out, and so that is really tough and is something I’m really working on[…]”

School does, in fact, play an important role in fostering social interactions and development. According to Mayo Clinic, participating in socialization is good for your “mind and body,” as it dissipates feelings of loneliness and helps give a sense of happiness and wellbeing, and additionally improves memory and cognitive skills. Though socialization through technology can still have an impact, in-person is better, and as a place where students spend at least seven hours a day, school is a great source for that. 

Experiencing social interactions did, of course, come easier when there wasn’t a global pandemic to worry about. Despite the concerns of in-person learning, Sherwin said that she thinks that going to school in-person would be better for her mental health because of the usual casual interactions and support system that comes with being surrounded by friends and teachers.

“I really do think that doing it in-person as much as I can would be way better for my mental health,” Sherwin said, “…just because that’s what I’m used to and that’s the way it’s always been, and this is a big change, and that’s really stressful.”

Schools, including Rock Bridge, are attempting to reach out in different ways, such as through one-on-one Zoom meetings with counselors and mental-health surveys, though it’s still hard to match the positive effects of in-person social interaction. A study published in June from the National Institutes of Health surveyed children and adolescents experiencing social isolation due to the closure of schools, social distancing, and home quarantine. It found that children and adolescents are more likely to experience depression and anxiety during and after enforced isolation. COVID-19 also causes young people to experience additional anxiety from the looming threat of familial unemployment and lack of income, and teenagers are “already at higher risk of developing mental health problems compared to adults.”

 With this in mind, Sherwin had some concerns about the accessibility of Rock Bridge’s mental health services. 

“I don’t really know what they have to offer by way of mental health services, so I think that speaks to how good they are, because obviously they haven’t really talked about outreach or anything,” Sherwin said. “And, honestly I don’t know who I would go to to talk about that if I was really struggling and didn’t have a good support system at home or with my friends, or with my family[…]I don’t think they’re doing a good job of communicating with that.” 

Lesley Thalhuber, an outreach counselor and sponsor of the Compassion in Action club at Rock Bridge, said that students can receive help from their assigned counselor through phone, email, and Zoom sessions, and counselors are able to recommend additional support if needed. Thalhuber described how the mental health and concerns of students are varied.

We want to ensure that students are connecting with their teacher and counselor as needed.”

Lesley Thalhuber, RBHS outreach counselor

“I have had students reach out for a variety of concerns from reaching out before school started afraid of being in person and later stated that being online has helped them decrease their anxiety about COVID-19 as they were afraid to come back and be exposed,” Thalhuber said. “Other students would prefer to be in person as they aren’t in the best home environment and need a different kind of support for improved mental health.”

She also mentioned that home school communicator Mike Woods is able to address some student needs by making home visits and deliveries so students can have things like food, school supplies and Wi-Fi hotspots. 

“We want to ensure that students are connecting with their teacher and counselor as needed,” Thalhuber said. “Staff has been working hard to ensure that students have the supplies and Wi-Fi connection they need to start the year.”   

There are always ways to make this hard time a little easier. Sherwin noted that she is trying to get better at appreciating the current moment with limited distractions. 

“[I] try to be like, ‘Okay, now it’s time for break and you’re actually going to eat your lunch, and just sit and eat and do nothing but eat,” Sherwin said.

How has virtual learning affected your health? Let us know in the comments below.

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