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How are Merced County students coping with depression, anxiety during COVID pandemic?

Merced Sun-Star - 2/18/2021

Feb. 18—Nearly a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, living and learning in a virtual world has become the new reality for most public high school students statewide.

Locally, while many Merced Union High School District students say they have adjusted, others say being away from the classroom, friends and mentors is taking an emotional toll.

Gone are the days when friends could sit side-by-side in classes, chat about weekend plans, attend games, do in-person group projects or hang out with friends at lunch.

Plus for high school seniors the question of prom and graduation still lingers. Already, for example, Merced High's traditional Senior Sunrise was held virtually. They've also missed a handful of school dances.

Students like Merced High senior Sativa Labuguen-Nai, 18, say that aspect of socializing and interacting with others is what they miss the most.

Labuguen-Nai never liked the mandatory pep rallies, but because of the pandemic she misses them and other school events. "We would complain, like, 'why we would have to do this, and why we would have to do that.' And now we're just begging to be there," Labuguen-Nai said.

Students like Labuguen-Nai are not alone, in terms of dealing with emotions like loneliness and isolation during the COVID pandemic.

According to Mental Health America, young people, specifically youth ages 11-17 are currently struggling the most with their mental health. "The proportion of youth ages 11-17 who accessed screening was 9 percent higher than the average in 2019," part of the report reads.

"Not only are the number of youth searching for help with their mental health increasing, but throughout the COVID-19 pandemic youth ages 11-17 have been more likely than any other age group to score for moderate to severe symptoms of anxiety and depression."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also reported an uptick in youth visiting emergency rooms for mental health needs between April and October.

What local district is seeing

Cristi Johnson, director of student services at Merced Union High School District, acknowledged that during the pandemic there has been an increased number of Merced County youth who've reported dealing with mental health struggles.

Johnson said in an email that 236 district students have reported feelings of isolation, depression, and anxiety for the first semester of this school year.

To help students cope, MUHSD has been offering in-person, phone, or virtual counseling upon request.

All campuses have licensed counselors, plus freshman health classes discuss mental health, according to Johnson. The district also encourages students to seek emotional and social support through the district's virtual calming room and through the county's hotline for youth.

The services are offered with the hope of alleviating the negative impacts of the pandemic and distance learning.

It may not be long, however, before more students begin to get back some sense of normalcy. MUHSD is moving to a hybrid learning model starting March 15 — meaning some instruction during the week will be in person, while the rest will be remote learning behind a computer screen.

"The health and well-being of our students is always a factor in the decision-making process," Sam Yniguez, director of communications at MUHSD said in an email.

"And because of that, we want our students back on campuses as soon as possible. However, their safety and the safety of our staff will always be the top priority."

Yniguez said the March 15 date was chosen because the outlook provided by Merced County Department of Health did not look good for February. Plus, March 15 is the start of the fourth quarter.

Johnson anticipates the hybrid model will help students cope with feelings of loneliness because they will have more opportunities for face-to-face interactions.

Genevieve Valentine, Merced County Behavioral Health and Recovery Services director, said socializing is especially important for youth, as their brains are still developing.

"As human beings, specifically, children and young adults, their entire sense of self is typically connected to a larger group — family, peers, school, sports — when you take a youth away from the environment that has fostered the sense of self, there's gonna be a lot of frustration and confusion," Valentine explained.

"Because kids have historically, especially young adults, have learned about life in context of their peers and engaging with people. When you take the engagement piece out, they're gonna struggle because they haven't had to learn how to deal with a lot of those things on their own."

Feelings of isolation

Labuguen-Nai hasn't hung out with friends since the pandemic started in March. That time away from them led her to question the value of those friendships.

"This is the one time that I can say that I've actually learned who your true friends are and who they're not, is during this time," Labuguen-Nai said.

"Because it's who chooses to check up on you, who chooses to try to keep having a conversation and a friendship with you. I had kids I thought I was really close to, who I haven't talked to since COVID started."

"I can tell you, right now, half of our high school (Merced High) feels like they're isolated," she added.

Diego Garcia, a 17-year-old senior at Livingston High, said friendships have also changed in one way or another because of distance learning.

"You sort of lose contact with them in one way or another, and certainly my circle has gotten a little smaller of who I'm talking to on a day-to-day basis," he said.

Feelings of loneliness and some sadness have also taken a toll on Lauryn Franzese, a 17-year-old senior at Livingston High.

"I always consider myself a very bubbly, happy person so when all our social interactions were kind of taken away it was really hard on my mental health," Franzese said.

It especially affected her friends who struggle with isolation, depression, and anxiety. Nonetheless, she and her friends do the best they can do to check in on one another.

"I guess you could say, like, when you're going through a very bad episode, it's really hard to dig yourself out," Franzese said.

"But when you have supportive friends who are there for you, and even though it's not in person, it might be virtual, just knowing that they still have your back, I mean, that's a great feeling in itself but it has been really difficult for my friends and I to adjust to this and our mental health, because it affected all of us really."

Parents also noticing impacts

Feelings of melancholy didn't just affect this year's seniors, it impacted the class of 2020 graduates.

Joanna Murillo, whose daughter recently graduated from Golden Valley, said the school's closure and the distance learning affected her daughter more than her peers.

Murillo's daughter was also coping with the death of her sister, Heaven Murillo, who suffered a violent death a few years back.

"She struggled to pull through having to raise grades after the depression and missing school and grades dropping," Joanna said. "Then COVID hit. She's been isolated since. Her graduation was a simple drive-thru. Saddest thing I ever experienced."

These days the living room is the college learning space for Murillo's daughter, and she's had very few ways to socialize outside home.

"Worse thing to have to do is be locked up while grieving. We do our best. It affected her grades. Took her away from her friends. Ruined her graduation, graduation trip, prom. Everything a high schooler is supposed to enjoy," Murillo said.

Johnson and Valentine, advise that parents and teachers make every effort they can to check in on their kids' mental health.

Valentine said parents should also initiate some activity, whether that's going on a drive, or doing something outdoors. Teachers should send individual messages to students, asking how they're doing mentally and emotionally.

Johnson said teachers and students need to practice self-care and compassion.

"Validate this is a difficult time, and offer hope — struggling right now is normal and not an indication that someone is "failing" as a person or broken; it won't be like this forever," Johnson wrote in an email.

"I think if our parents are brave enough to have that conversation, the kids, the youth, the young adults are going to be like, 'oh it's OK and it's safe for me to have that conversation,'" Valentine said.

Looking on the bright side

The high school seniors the Sun-Star spoke with acknowledged the efforts made by adults in their lives.

Still, Franzese said parents and teachers could be more supportive of students by offering tutoring, helping with the college admission process and having empathy.

"I just think the best thing they can do is just to try to put themselves in our shoes and try to understand where we're coming from, just trying to be supportive," Franzese said.

"There's going to be times when we really just need family and staff on our side when we're going through really difficult things, or we want them on our side when we're celebrating the little wins in life."

Ultimately the best thing anyone can do for the mental health of young people is to remain optimistic, says Franzese and Garcia.

"I'm still learning at my high school, even though it's virtual. I just try to look on the bright side of things and all the positives," she explained. "There's a lot of really big problems in the world. And I would like to think that my high school experience isn't one of those."

"Take it easy on yourself, especially right now," Garcia added. "It's a tough time, but things should turn out a little better."

For emotional support, teens can call the county's hotline (209) 381-6800. If you know someone in a crisis, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (Lifeline) at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741).


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