Battle Creek

Voices of Youth Battle Creek: Pandemic-related impact on teen mental health

The pandemic's long-term shutdowns may be over, we all hope, but there's been some collateral impact among adolescents who were forced into isolation at one of the most social times of their high school lives. Voices of Youth writer Lauren Davis, a senior at Lakeview High School, speaks with peers and experts about these lingering effects and what can be done to help.
Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan Second Wave's Voices of Youth Battle Creek program which is supported by the BINDA foundation, Battle Creek Community Foundation, the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, and City of Battle Creek.

Three years.

Three years since we were all forced into our homes without a moment's notice. Three years since we were isolated from the ones we love. Three years since the initial global shutdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic occurred, and we are still affected by it every day. 

Given the enormous change that COVID caused overnight, it’s understandable to assume that people are still suffering, specifically, with their mental health. Mental health is our emotional, psychological, and social well-being, and when people have been exposed to prolonged stress, such as the pandemic, it can be hard to function in everyday life, especially for teenagers. 

Robert Allison, the Dean of Students and a Licensed Professional Counselor at Lakeview High School says that he sees teenagers being greatly impacted by COVID because they were at a critical point in their lives when the pandemic hit. 

Robert Allison, Dean of Students and a Licensed Professional Counselor at Lakeview High School “Teenagers are already at risk for mental health struggles,” Allison says. “Anybody who is at a transition point is at risk, and there’s no larger transition point than adolescence, so you take an already at-risk population and throw that volatility into it, and we now have, what I would say is, a crisis.”

Part of the cause of this crisis, especially for teenagers, was the unpredictability of the future, their first time experiencing this disruption of norms in their lives. 

“Up until this point, teenagers had an expectation. They knew the school, they knew their sports, they knew all these things that would happen,” Grace Health Behavioral Health Therapist Ciara VanderPloeg says. “There was a schedule in place, there was normalcy. And then the pandemic put everything to a grinding halt.” 

Bryce Anthony, Lakeview High School SeniorThe uncertainty and lack of structure caused by COVID-19 led to teenagers suffering without the proper resources to keep themselves healthy and safe. In addition, being isolated from the most important people in their lives created the perfect conditions for mental illness; specifically anxiety and depression, especially if mental health struggles were something they experienced prior to the pandemic.

“Originally, I had a lot of anxiety, and I think, just the thought that a bunch of people out in the world were dying of a sickness can give you a lot of extra anxiety,” Lakeview High School senior Max Bird says. 

Max Bird, Lakeview High School SeniorLakeview High School students spent the last three months of the 2020 school year, as well as the first four months of the 2020-2021 school year exclusively virtual before starting hybrid learning in January of 2021. 

“I felt like I was all alone all the time, and it definitely drug me down to a place where I felt like I just had nowhere to go and nowhere to be,” LHS senior Bryce Anthony says. 

Even though the initial panic that the pandemic caused had passed and school resumed in a more normal fashion, social isolation for such a long period continues to affect teenagers today, especially their attitude towards being around others and how to act in social situations.

Allana Rogers, Lakeview High School Senior“I don’t like people touching me very much anymore, and I used to be someone that hugged my friends and held hands with them,” says LHS senior Allana Rogers.

“It’s affected me to the point where, yes, I’m still extroverted, but I find myself being a lot more, like, ‘Don’t get close to me,’” Anthony says.

Izabella Albarran, a freshman at the time of the initial shutdown, was just moving back to Battle Creek after a year of living in Traverse City when the pandemic hit. Her excitement towards returning was quickly and unexpectedly shut down.

Isabella Albarran, Lakeview High School Senior“Interactions with people definitely got harder to do, although it’s all I really wanted after I came back,” Albarran says.

Not only have social skills been impacted, but it is much more common for teenagers to experience anxiety when going into public spaces.

“It kind of gets stressful sometimes when it’s a very, very large group of people, and I know that somebody in there could have COVID,” LHS junior Miguel Rivera says.

Miguel Rivera, Lakeview High School JuniorUnlike the typical flu or common cold, the difference between COVID-19 and other illnesses is the severity of the symptoms, along with the likelihood of death. According to Allison, this is a significant factor in the increasing anxiety levels.

“The fact that we could die from this sickness and many people already did by just going into a public place was just all the more terrifying to me,” Bird says.

Not only local students have been affected by COVID-19. Teenagers everywhere have suffered from the pandemic’s negative impact on mental health, both during and post-COVID.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in 2022 that  37% of high school students reported they experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 44% reported they persistently felt sad or hopeless in 2021-2022.

Even with COVID contained, teenagers continue to suffer. And with the increase in mental illness, there must also increase in access to resources to help teach teens how to cope. VanderPloeg urges teens to practice mindfulness and meditation and says that seeing a primary care provider for medication, as well as therapy sessions with a mental health specialist are beneficial for those struggling with mental health, which has been made available to all teenagers.

Grace Health Behavioral Health Therapist Ciara VanderPloeg“As long as you are 14 and up, you can get mental health services at community mental health centers completely free of charge, completely confidential, and your parents don’t have to know about it.”

The message that Robert Allison wants to leave with teens is no matter what they are experiencing, not to give up. “There are things you can do to get better. It doesn’t mean it’s gonna be easy but don’t give up. It can get better, there’s help available.”

Lauren Davis is a senior at Lakeview High School. She studies broadcast journalism, as well as sports management and marketing, and will continue to study at Kellogg Community College in the fall.

Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.