Posted on: December 10, 2021 Posted by: Glacier Staff Comments: 0

By Rosie Finnegan, JRN 111 Student

Alli Salvato has struggled with her mental health for a long time, but when the pandemic struck, her depression gained the upper hand.

“There was a mandate to stay home and my mental health went downhill completely. I was always inside and not motivated to do anything,” said Salvato, a Moraine Valley sophomore majoring in animal science. “I struggled with online classes, going to work, and even getting up to make my own bed.”

Salvato is not alone, according to a warning issued last week by U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who said we are seeing “alarming increases in the prevalence of certain mental health challenges” among today’s youth. Murthy released a 53-page advisory detailing the “devastating” adverse effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and other challenges on the mental health of a generation.

Depressive and anxiety symptoms doubled during the pandemic, according to the report, while emergency room visits for suspected suicide attempts went up a whopping 51 percent for girls and 4 percent for boys compared with the same period in 2019.

The pandemic exacerbated a problem that already existed. According to public surveys, feelings of hopelessness and sadness in high school students increased by 40 percent from 2009 to 2019.

Causes of crisis go beyond the individual

The past two years have changed every aspect of daily life, from the individual level all the way up to society as a whole. Things like the Black Lives Matter movement and school shifting to an all online format were detrimental to young people, and still the public is focusing on mental health as a personal issue. Murthy explained in his advisory that a large portion of the increase in mental health issues can be attributed to things like gun violence, racism, and even climate change. 

A graphic from the U.S. surgeon general’s advisory on protecting youth mental health shows layers of influencing factors.

Moraine Valley counselor Shanya Gray was struck by a graphic in the report showing factors that can influence mental health, including aspects of society, environment, community and family.

“A lot of times we tend to focus more on the individual, but when you see that model and really look at the factors that can shape [a person], I think that’s really important to focus on,” Gray said. “What it means then is that you can’t just intervene at one level. You have to intervene at all of these different levels.”

There are also differences in the different subpopulations. Females are more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety, depression, and eating disorders, while males die by suicide much more often. Even further, suicide rates among black children are increasing faster than those of white children. 

“We hear on the news all the time about the violence against black men, but how often do we hear about the mental health of those young people in the city of Chicago?” Gray said. “How often do we hear about the mental health of young black males? We don’t, and I appreciate this drawing attention to those aspects of it and the groups that have issues with mental health.

“We talk about trauma, we talk about veterans and we talk about PTSD, but we’re not talking about what these kids are experiencing every day walking to school. I think it’s really important that we start engaging in those conversations and we start connecting the dots for all of our students.”

MV works to protect students’ mental health

Gray discussed the training that the counselors do with staff at Moraine. Since mental health issues are often invisible, it is important for school staff to be trauma informed, which could mean a professor simply offering a trigger warning for something being shown in class and being compassionate if a student may need to step out of class. 

“I think that Moraine is pretty effective with the protection of their students’ mental health,” sophomore Lindsey Kusturin said. “Most of my teachers have been very understanding that this was a difficult situation and have really tried to work to the best of their abilities to prevent any COVID-related stress.” 

Did you know…

Moraine offers free short-term counseling services to students for personal issues. Suicide prevention helplines are also available: 800-273-8255 or 988 or text 741741.

Social media has reduced a lot of stigma that comes with mental health struggles. Across all platforms, videos and blogs discussing personal struggles can be found, and these are helpful to young people who may be struggling. Murthy attributes some of the increase in need for mental health services to this very reason.

Accessibility is also a large factor, and Gray explained that students often seek out Moraine’s counseling services to avoid conflict with families who may not be willing to accept that their loved one is struggling. 

“A lot of times we dismiss kids’ concerns,” Gray said. “As a society we do discriminate against youth a lot. We disempower them and try to say ‘you don’t know, we know better as adults.’ We don’t listen to them. We minimize their feelings. Drawing attention to this I think is major and it can change, perhaps, the landscape. Hopefully this comes with additional funding and a lot of other provisions for youth mental health.” 

Student success depends on mental health

It can be difficult for teachers and professors to be there for students, especially when there may be a large student-to-teacher ratio. There is just not enough time to give each student the same amount of attention. Murthy calls for students who are struggling to be prioritized.

This brings up a conversation of fairness, but Gray references a quote from author Rick Riordan that she includes at the bottom all of her emails: “Fairness does not mean everyone gets the same. Fairness means everyone gets what they need.”

Some students may need more help than others, and providing it is not treating them better, it is meeting their needs so that they can achieve the same and be on the same level as other students, Gray says.

“If we want students to succeed,” she says, “then we have to recognize that caring for their well being, mentally, emotionally, and physically, is a critical part.”

Murthy sums up the importance of prioritizing mental wellbeing as a health issue:

“Mental health affects every aspect of our lives: how we feel about ourselves and the world; solve problems, cope with stress, and overcome challenges; build relationships and connect with others; and perform in school, at work, and throughout life. Mental health encompasses our emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing, and is an essential component of overall health.”