Amy Braun (NU) – As officials across the nation decide how best to open schools, one aspect too often overlooked is students’ mental health. Awareness of the pressures on our children is the first step towards helping them heal and preparing them to learn.

COVID-19 has left many kids feeling lonely and isolated. Research on the effect of the lockdowns published in the June issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry concludes that young people experiencing loneliness may be as much as three times more likely to sink into depression in the future, but additionally that their mental health could be impacted for at least nine years because of it.

One answer? Since 2003, HealthCorps has worked in high-need schools, supplementing existing health and wellness programs emphasizing physical activity, nutrition, mental resilience and civic engagement. These are teenagers who, even in normal circumstances, experience disparities in access to health services based on their socioeconomic status, geographic region, race or ethnicity – with perhaps predictable results. Specifically, higher rates of chronic disease (including stress) and lower measures of both quality of life and life expectancy.

And yet, through our unique curriculum – created by top healthcare professionals and constantly updated to match students’ needs – the students we work with have flourished. They exercise more, eat better, and practice positive thought. And, yes, they engage with their communities.

Since stress has always been an issue for many of these teens, one of the most requested lessons we were asked to bring to classrooms even before the pandemic hit was “Bust My Stress.” And now? Add the coronavirus-induced feelings of isolation to that equation, and you begin to see how fragile our nation’s teens may be.

As one of our Florida students so heartbreakingly told us amid the lockdowns: “I still keep it in, but I still think negative like every night. I cry it out so I won’t have to feel that way again in the morning.”

Building mental resilience has become an increased focus of our work.

Of course, parents have their own role to play in their teenagers’ healing process.

“They can help by reassuring teens that, just because they’re nervous or scared, doesn’t mean they’re really in any danger,” says Mark Goulston, M.D., a HealthCorps advisory board member and widely quoted expert on building a positive culture. “By reminding them that their bodies don’t really understand the fear, and by talking it out and discussing the fear, both the parent and child will feel better and closer.”

The HealthCorps program is delivered by highly trained recent college graduates who are future medical and health policy professionals. They interact with teens on a daily basis – though, these days, virtually – and have developed some simple steps that can help youths through these trying times. Among them:

  • Meditate or try deep-breathing methods, which increase your body’s natural ability to relax during high-stress moments.
  • Get moving.
  • Prioritize sleep.
  • Talk things out with someone you trust.
  • Do or watch something that makes you laugh.
  • Keep a non-judgmental journal to help process thoughts.
  • Practice gratitude and positive self-talk.

(Amy Braun is the CEO of HealthCorps, a national not for profit providing health and wellness resources to teens, parents and faculty at high-need schools.)

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