Voices of Youth: Washtenaw County students grapple with COVID's long-term mental health effects

This article is part of Concentrate's Voices of Youth series, which features content created by Washtenaw County youth in partnership with Concentrate staff mentors, as well as feature stories by adult writers that examine issues of importance to local youth. In this installment, student writer and photographer Felix Brown examines how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected him and his peers.

Anxiety and depression have always been a concern for many youths, but the COVID-19 pandemic took these significant issues to the next level. I interviewed two faces of youth from Washtenaw County about their unique experiences with mental health and the pandemic, alongside my own experience and a professional opinion from the president and CEO of the Mental Health Association in Michigan, to bring to light some of the extreme effects these past few years have had on young people's mental health.

I’m a 14-year-old boy from Ypsilanti, and I'm about to go into my freshman year in Ann Arbor Public Schools (AAPS). I was 11 in March 2020 when the lockdown started and school went online. Like many others, I was excited about the “3-week spring break” we were told we were getting. But as three weeks turned into four weeks, then a month, two months, and eventually the rest of the school year and all of the next, it became startlingly obvious this wasn’t just another small sickness, and it wasn’t going away.

Felix Brown.
Online fifth grade wasn’t horrible. Sure, I probably didn’t learn much, but I was on top of work and I felt okay. By sixth grade, things had changed. Starting middle school is hard enough, but starting it on Zoom was a whole other beast. I quickly started experiencing anxiety around schoolwork and my friendships. Everything was so overwhelming and different, and my friends and I were all stressed from the pandemic and isolation. I remember constant arguments over text messages in the middle of class for the dumbest reasons. Our relationships were so strained and it piled on to all the other stress. I could barely pay attention to class, and when I did, nothing made sense. I was incredibly hard on myself. If I had a 99% in a class I would spiral into “What did I get wrong?” or “What didn’t I understand?” All of this was so much on my shoulders that I became depressed. I stayed up until 3 a.m. crying from the stress, pressure, and problems with my friends, which caused sleep deprivation. Eventually, I could barely get out of bed and slept through most of my classes. 

Of course, I did the one thing you should never do when you feel like this: I told no one. I just pretended to be happy and perfectly fine. I felt incredibly alone and hopeless. How could I ever get better? I started hurting myself and hating myself. I kept all of this hidden until the next year, in seventh grade. Once I told the people I trusted, I was able to get better. I talked to my parents and therapist, and those feelings started feeling more manageable. I started taking anxiety medication and using the coping skills I learned. I may not be cured but I’m now way happier and have an amazing support group. My journey showed me that you can get better if you try and you can turn your life around. It showed me it’s okay to rely on others, and how important it is to talk to people instead of keeping everything inside. 

After everything, I wondered: did other people my age experience these things? What are their stories? If I shared them, maybe I could show other people experiencing what I did that they are not alone and they can get better.

The first person I spoke to was Nome B., an eighth grader at AAPS who uses he/they/e pronouns. He told me that even as a child he was very anxious. His parents knew this would become an issue later in his life. Nome says that he would have always had anxiety issues. However, the pandemic and quarantine brought it to the surface even sooner.

He says he wasn’t worried about COVID-19 at first and was excited about the “three-week break” until he realized it wasn’t going away. 

“It was funny until it wasn't," Nome says.

He recalls having a gradual increase in panic attacks and having a lot of anxiety around contamination; overly washing his hands, being scared of touching anything, and feeling like he had to wash his hands anytime he touched his face.

A few months into the pandemic Nome sought help in cognitive behavioral therapy. He says the therapy helped him a lot with being able to keep his anxiety under control and learning coping strategies.

Many people were worried about going back to school in the fall of 2021. Some people were excited to finally not be cooped up in their house. Nome says he was relieved when school resumed. 

"The pandemic is like eating spoiled food every day for like a year, and then regular school is like eating bland food every day," he says. "If you’ve been eating the spoiled food for so long it’s a huge relief to go back to the bland food, but after a while, you get tired of it.”

This analogy shows how many youths felt going back to school. It was so exciting until after a while you remember it’s still just school.

Tappan Middle School as it is under normal circumstances, and as it was during the pandemic.
Now, Nome says he's been on anxiety medication for about a year or two, which has helped a ton. His anxiety is still present, but much more manageable. That being said, he still struggles with depressive moods.

My next interview was with Patrick Alt, a seventh grader at Ypsilanti Community Schools. He talked to me about how he still wears a mask everywhere.

“I don’t ever not want to wear a mask,” he said.

Patrick Alt.
Many kids still have a fear of infection and risking contamination. He said it seems like everyone has moved on from COVID-19 or doesn’t care, and he is still worried about it. 

He felt excited about returning to school, but while many of his peers took off their masks, he continued to wear them. He says that the mask is also just something he’s gotten used to and it would be strange to not wear it.

Everyone had a different experience with having school online; some people struggled and some didn’t mind. Patrick didn’t mind as much. He liked being back in person more, but he says it was nice being able to have lunch with his family every day. Every young person had different experiences with COVID and different severities of struggles, but even the people who were able to get through it still have their fears, and the pandemic affected everyone’s long-term lives in one way or another.

I also spoke to Marianne Huff, the president and CEO of the Mental Health Association in Michigan, about what she and her staff are witnessing since the pandemic. According to Huff, they had noticed a rise in mental health issues in children and adolescents even before the pandemic, around 2017 and 2018. The pandemic brought forward and increased those pre-existing problems.

“Kids went from having a regular, structured, ordered day, to having nothing,” Huff said, regarding the sudden switch from in-person to online school.

Huff also touched on the fact that kids who already struggled with depression or anxiety before COVID-19 had an even harder time dealing with their mental health during the pandemic. 

Huff stated that there is also a large problem of kids acting out and being aggressive toward their parents, guardians, and teachers. She said there aren’t enough inpatient psychiatric beds for these kids and they end up getting stuck in the emergency room for a month instead. There also aren't enough psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, nurse practitioners, etc., to treat kids who are struggling. Huff told me the Mental Health Association in Michigan has been meeting with legislators and elected officials to encourage them to administer money towards increasing the number of psychiatric beds we have. They also help support Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s endeavor to motivate people to go into social work professions.

While this article only touches on a few people’s experiences, data show that this issue is a widespread crisis. According to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the percentage of high schoolers who experience poor mental health, persistent feelings of sadness, and have thought about or attempted to take their life has been increasing over the years. These data also show this has majorly affected young women and members of the LGBTQ+ community. These data agree with what I’ve seen myself in the local community.

So, to answer my question: did others experience what I did? Yes. We were all affected by the pandemic in one way or another. I hope that by talking to these people and sharing their stories, we are one step closer to getting children and teens around the world the help they need to have an amazing life. I hope that this article made at least one person feel a little less alone. There are always people there to help. If you or anyone you know is struggling, please contact (734) 544-3050 for any mental health questions or concerns. This line will connect you to Washtenaw County Community Mental Health. If you have had thoughts of harming yourself or suicide, please text or call 988 for the suicide and crisis lifeline.

Felix Brown will be a ninth grader at Community High School in Ann Arbor this fall. Concentrate staffers Jaishree Drepaul and Lynne Settles served as his mentors on this project.

All photos by Felix Brown, except Felix Brown photo by Megan Brown.

To learn more about Concentrate's Voices of Youth project and read other installments in the series, click 
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