Mental Health & COVID: Advice from a UMass Boston NP on How to Prepare Teens for College

It’s a fact: Current sophomores, juniors and seniors have had their high school years (and mental health) somewhat or greatly impacted by the pandemic. They spent months — and months and months — in some form of quarantine: Zoom School, limitless screentime with no IRL activities, classes in jammies, exercise consisting of a cardio-move from the chair to the bed to the couch, too much family time, too little friend time and thoughts of college kicked to the curb because, well, would there even be campus life again?

Those were the spring days of 2020 which turned into the fall and winter days of 2020. 2021 brought vaccines and boosters and a promise of a return-to-normal whose path was bumpy (Enter Delta, Omicron and now BA.2) but still a path.

So, how’s the College Class of 2027 feeling? Some pretty good; some not so great, but they’re faking it well. These high school juniors are putting on a good face because at least now they can show those full faces to one another. With mask mandates lifted nationwide (Hawaii was the last state to dissolve mandates on March 25, 2022), these students are seeing their classmates’ mouths and chins for the first time since the spring of freshman year. They’re touring campuses in-person (if they choose to) and they’re back on the playing fields, on performance stages, in art studios — and at parties. They’re being teenagers in high school. For the first time in two years. Two years. That’s a lifetime when you’re a junior, ranging in age from 16-18.

How much maturing actually occurs in those two years and if that stage of emotional growth is skipped, do students truly suffer? I consulted with my cousin Alexandra “Alex” England, who’s a nurse practitioner at UMass Boston to hear how college students are transitioning from COVID high school to semi-post-COVID college. Her boots-on-the-ground intel confirmed what I’ve been reading in the mainstream press as well as the industry journals: Many students are simply not ready for college. As Alex put it, “College freshman are immature. They haven’t had the opportunity to grow up, make mistakes, lean on their family and friends for support while they learn how to be adults.”

What happens when that growth cycle is stunted?

The fall out is a lack of skills and confidence when socializing and negotiating with peers. Many students are having trouble making new friends because they missed out on team-building moments gained on the playing field, debate forum or science lab. Classes and extracurriculars provide opportunities to connect with people; current students, Alex said, have anxiety and sensitivity around people. “One student visited me in the clinic and said that every time she coughed, her roommate accused her of having COVID. She had a simple cold, yet when she coughed, she felt people were looking at her and this resulted in panic attacks.”

Are social media streams helpful?

According to Alex, they exacerbate the issue. “Students see curated worlds of friends having fun and their own life doesn’t seem to add up,” says Alex. “It’s FOMO, but if offered an opportunity to join and not miss out, some students feel they don’t know how to be interesting, attractive, or engaging. They don’t know how to connect to others.”

How can parents or caregivers help teenagers who’ve missed these milestone high school years?

Encourage students to be social and do activities with friends, not just their family. “Students should get jobs, learn to drive, make mistakes out in the real world with their friends — when they’re still living at home and are supported by people who love them the most. This is probably not a popular comment to make, but parents should urge their kids to go to parties while they’re in high school, so their first party experience is not on a college campus.” A trend that both Alex and I discussed is a lack of resiliency which can be easily remedied. Students struggle with multi-tasking and often rely on their parents to book their standardized testing dates, fill out their registration forms for activities, arrange college tours. “Make students book their dental appointments,” says Alex. “Before they go off to college, make sure they know how to fill their prescriptions and call their doctors. Many students are scared to talk to their professors, roommates or anyone they don’t know. I had a 23-year-old student recently ask me for a note for his professor because he missed class. There’s a lack of self-advocation and confidence along with tremendous anxiety about going out in the world and interacting in any way.” Students need to be gently pushed out the door. With a hug and the knowledge that they can succeed.

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