CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) - Claudia Allen, a professor of family medicine and director of behavior science at the University of Virginia, is tracking children’s mental health throughout the pandemic. Over the past year, she’s seen cases of depression soar, likely due to isolation.
“It’s just not natural for kids and teenagers to not be able to be with their peers, not to be able to be out and be physically active,” Allen said.
Allen said she’s seen teenagers at the middle and high school level suffer the most.
“It’s really been that eleven to 15-year-old group that’s been left the most high and dry by this,” Allen said. “That’s an age where it’s really important to be engaging with your peers. That’s what you’re all about, really, at that age.”
Working from a screen all day, for months on end, leads to further isolation and social anxiety, Allen said, especially in an age group that is already predisposed to heightened anxiety.
“If you have that normal anxiety that most teenagers do about whether they fit in, how they look, being called on in class, it can be very easy to stay home and hide on Zoom,” Allen said.
For few students, working from home in a more isolated environment is helpful. For most students, Allen said, getting back to the classroom is critical to combat pandemic-induced mental health issues.
“Not only is academic instruction much better in person, but by being in school, kids are learning really basic but fundamental skills, like how to navigate their way through the school, how to take a school bus, how to keep track of your own belongings during the day, how to talk with a whole wide variety of people, both peers and teachers, how to manage your emotions, how to have different social relationships,” Allen said. “These skills are absolutely key for children to stay on track of development.”
Returning to learn, however, poses its own challenges. Some children, and even their parents, may be scared or anxious to go “back to normal.”
“Once we’ve turned on that fear that it’s dangerous to leave the house, which is what we’ve been told for the past year, right, it’s extremely hard to turn that back off,” Allen said.
According to Allen, starting conversations with students about returning to the classroom or sports activities will help them bounce back and prevent long-term effects.
“That kind of discomfort or anxiety really goes down once we put ourselves in those situations, so even if you’re really anxious on the first day of school or the first day back at sports or something, if you kind of push yourself through it, by the second day you’re going to feel much better and by the second week, you’re going to feel pretty much fine,” she said.