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Devastating effects of poor mental health on teens: Experts give advice on how to cope

Photo by Ryan Melaugh used with permission
Photo by Ryan Melaugh used with permission

Across the country, high schools in the United States have faced an increase in rates of depression. According to recent data published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than one in three high school students have experienced hopelessness and sadness since 2009.

Depression is an issue that is very prevalent among students, but how does it specifically impact Howard County and Centennial? 

Instructional facilitator and secondary school counselor Elizabeth O’Connor believes that there is a lot of stress put on students. Pressure to perform well, including taking advanced courses and participating in extracurricular activities has contributed to an increase in feelings of hopelessness and sadness rates across high schools. 

Dr. Cynthia Schulmeyer, coordinator of school psychology & instructional intervention in Howard County, mentions more holistic factors that may contribute to students feeling hopelessness and sadness, including seeking independence, growth and hormonal changes and managing new responsibilities, such as taking care of siblings, holding jobs and other pressures placed on teens. She said that all of these aspects can cause uncertainty for the adolescent. 

“It is okay to not be in all the advanced courses … I think it is great to have high goals and achievements, but it is not okay to have it impact mental health,” O’Connor said.  

She wants to ensure that students are valuing physical health the same as mental health. Students should strive to seek help and address the problem that is causing disruption in their mental health and lives. She also emphasizes the significance of balancing expectations for academics and wellness. 

“Finding balance is what I would love Centennial High School Students to do,” O’Connor said. 

On the other hand, Schulmeyer believes that it is critical for students to have expectations pertaining to academic achievement that fit their abilities. As O’Connor said, Schulmeyer also believes that teachers and parents should aim to find a balance between academic rigor and opportunities for success. 

“Expectations that are below or above their personal capabilities and skills can lead to frustration, disappointment and sometimes sadness or feeling unworthy,” she said.

Time management is also critical for positive mental health. O’Connor notes that it is vital to designate an appropriate amount of time for each aspect of a student’s life, including friendships, family time, academics, self-care and hobbies.

In terms of the prevalence of depression, O’Connor believes that it really depends on the student, their circumstance and where the stressor lies. The pandemic was a significant contributor to the downfall of many students’ mental health. 

“It was very easy during that time to shut off cameras and not have to say anything, and to reduce how often we are interacting with each other … I had teachers say their students could walk down the street and they would have no idea who they were all year long. Their camera was off and they never spoke; they only typed in the chat,” O’Connor described.

Schulmeyer shared similar ideas with O’Connor explaining that possible causes of depression include, but are not limited to, circumstances such as grieving the death of a loved one, acceptance to college, relationship break-up and securing a job. She also believes that the COVID-19 pandemic played a huge role in the prevalence of feelings of sadness for both students and adults across the country.  

O’Connor suspects that the transition from virtual learning to in-person learning can be extremely stressful especially when social interactions are required. Parental or family distress can also contribute to the student’s tension.

She elaborated that it is important for students to be able to recognize poor mental health. For example, if a student were to realize that they have more bad days than good days, it may be a sign to seek assistance from a trusted adult. 

Some suggestions O’Connor had for handling sadness and hopelessness are to recognize there is a problem, seek help from a trusted adult and see an outside mental health provider.

Schulmeyer cites The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) when asked about the best ways to recognize depression, which include changes in eating and sleeping habits, loss of interest in certain activities and difficulty concentrating. 

Schulmeyer expresses that parents, teachers and students all have a significant role in managing an adolescent’s feelings of sadness or hopelessness. Some students might only need help from their parents or teachers, while others may need more direct attention from school counselors and psychologists. 

“A safe, supportive and nurturing environment is needed for an adolescent to learn strategies for when they are feeling sad or hopeless,” she said.  

O’Connor also copes with some of these problems by finding joy. 

“When I lose track of time, I always go back to walking my dog, but that’s just such a fun activity for me … finding the places that you are losing track of time … knowing the places that bring you joy and going to those places.” 

If you have an immediate need for help with depression, suicidal thoughts, or other serious mental health issues, resources are listed below: 

Grassroots Crisis Intervention at 410-531-6677 

The Maryland Crisis Hotline: Dial 211 and then choose option 1 

The Crisis Text Line: Text 741741 and a trained counselor will respond. 

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255


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About the Contributor
Edwin Wu, Online Editor