What have we learned about student mental health during the pandemic? Research has shown that the pandemic is affecting their mental health like never before, and many teens are resorting to substance use and other risky decisions. Fortunately, there are proven methods to protect and support teens while the pandemic wears on, focused on improving their mental health and encouraging their healthiest decisions. How do we know when and how to intervene? Let's review the known concerns, the corresponding protective factors, and the role of family and student resilience. And let's keep our students healthy. The Link between Teen Mental Health and Substance Use Most youth have experienced some form of emotional or mental health challenge during the pandemic, whether from loneliness, anxiety, depression or other concerns, and nearly 50 percent of teens are reporting worse mental health during the pandemic. And new data supports our expectations, proving some connection between pandemic-related mental health and an increase in substance use—13 percent of young adults ages 18-24 recently reported that they initiated or increased their substance use to cope with stress and emotions related to the pandemic. Additionally, substance misuse can exacerbate anxiety- and depression-related mental health issues, and vice versa. For those most vulnerable to either of these health conditions, the pandemic has been of particularly high consequence. Specific and Looming Concerns to Student Mental Health Here are a few of the largest concern areas for student mental health while teens either continue with distance learning or reintegrate to in-person schooling. Youth socializing Teens' social lives have been completely changed by the pandemic, and research shows that teens who are socially driven have really struggled with the disconnect from friends and peers. Many of these teens report using alcohol or other drugs, even in isolation, as a means to maintain social reputation. On the other hand, teens who previously struggled in social situations because of anxiety or bullying have experienced some relief during distance learning. For both of these groups of students, reintegrating into an in-person school situation may lead to higher levels of anxiety and the need for extra support. Tech and media use Distancing measures forced most teens to increase their use of social media. While many cite the technology as something that helped their mental health during the pandemic, providing them with peer connection and bonding, the overuse of technology has also caused health problems like depression, eating disorders and increased substance use. Adults might consider moderating teen technology use, helping them to develop healthier media habits while technology-free social opportunities become more widely available. Disproportionate mental health effects Not all teens are experiencing hardships equally during the pandemic, and existing inequalities have been exacerbated by the pandemic. Research shows that students experiencing food insecurity are much more likely to be dealing with depression than students without this concern. And teens with stressed parents now experience more stress themselves, as do teens who are impacted by structural racism. Teen stress is cumulative, so caring adults should consider the many factors outside of COVID-19—like those listed above—that may affect a student's stress profile, because students who already had high rates of stress before the pandemic are more likely to be negatively affected by the pandemic. How We Can Help: Tips for Counselors, Educators and Other Caring Adults Here's the good news: although 75 percent of young people reported at least one mental health consequence related to COVID-19, a majority (87 percent) did not increase their substance use. So how are these young people staying resilient during the pandemic, and how can we continue to build up their resilience? Here are a few tips. For teachers and educators Acknowledge the hardships of the school year in course planning: consider loosening strict deadlines and making it easier for students to turn in assignments. Student stress can lessen as educators show empathy. Be open to learn from feedback and conversations with students about the semester. Teachers can build more effective protections against stress by listening to their students. Prioritize opportunities for students to relate with each other in the online setting. Social connectedness built at school is crucial to student wellness. Provide extra hours for getting to know students, advising or helping with coursework. Adult role models outside of the home serve as an additional resource. For counselors and advisors Use telehealth and other outlets to increase counseling and mental health support, education and other services. Students in need require more support during this time to build resiliency from stress. Respond to a lack of program opportunities for students by providing current, updated, and helpful advice and resources. Keeping students engaged with learning opportunities helps young people form protective pro-social identities and can provide a healthy alternative to substance use during free time. Be creative with opportunities for students to network and continue to move forward despite setbacks from the virus. Help students maintain a protective, future orientation. Destigmatize mental illness and substance use disorders by speaking about them always from a health perspective and making it an informal and frequent topic with students. Post information about substance misuse, mental health and where to get help in virtual and in-person student spaces. For students themselves Find ways to relax by engaging in new or ongoing de-stressing activities and enjoyable hobbies. Adults can help students find and fund these healthy zones for identity development, recreation and skill growth. Stay connected with family and friends through technology like Zoom or FaceTime. Adults can make sure these platforms are working for their students and can help students discover additional digital and other safe ways to connect. Talk to advisors about academics and mental health. Adults can initiate these conversations and keep resources available to all kids. Remember that the pandemic is a learning experience, and it is okay to reach out for help. Adults can help students reframe their experiences and practice gratitude as a pathway to resilience. It Starts at Home: Parenting Techniques That Encourage Better Mental Health There are a number of ways to help a teen navigate mental health challenges and build up the protective factors that keep them safe. For one, parents can role-model good mental health hygiene and self-care. Besides that, be in open and constant communication with teens about how they're feeling, and always look for opportunities to implement naturally rewarding family behavior. Discuss feelings with them. Adult vulnerability is powerful. In an age-appropriate way, let children and teens know what new stresses are a part of their parents' lives. Share the healthy ways that they are meeting and overcoming those stresses. Listen and help young adults identify their feelings, then seek healthy solutions with and for them. Set time limits around potentially unhealthy habits, like internet usage and social media. When parents set a new limit, share the reasons with their teen. Say, "This is a new family limit we are setting to take care of your/our health." Allow them to ask questions, while keeping a firm boundary. If parents have put similar practices into play for their own mental health, such as limiting their intake of news, they can share how they're keeping this promise to themselves and their family. Try a new healthy high and encourage teens to do the same. While at home, what can parents do to bring wellness, fun, identity exploration and/or bonding into their lives? They can make a list of options in collaboration with their teens and go for it as a family! Consider their own use and attitudes about alcohol and other drugs. What a parent says about alcohol and other drugs, how their use has changed or remained the same during this time, and how they handle challenges without substances are likely more visible now to the young people in their lives. Other Parenting and Professional Practices That Could Make All the Difference Here are a few more ways to smooth the transition back to school and keep students healthy and engaged throughout the coming year. Create space for regular check-ins with your teen. Parents could set aside time to reflect with their teen on how they (and themselves) are doing, considering what is working and options for preparing to transition back to school and into new social situations. Proactively confront stresses that may lead to use. Facilitate connections to school and the larger community. Encourage involvement in community connections, like trying out new clubs or exploring different interests. Returning to school may be, for some students, a chance to explore new sides of themselves. Involvement in activities that don't include the potential for substance use decreases teen risk. Have consistent conversations about substance misuse rules and boundaries. Teens crave boundaries and routine, and respond well to clear language and an understanding of why those rules are in place. Consider being intentional with language: "I expect you to be home by this time, because I care about your health and I want you to get enough sleep." Encourage self-compassion and hold space for individual needs. Encourage students to avoid comparisons to others, which can be detrimental to student health. Consider limiting screen time and initiate conversations about social media consumption. Help teens plan their return to school. Teens with social stress may benefit from talking through upcoming situations and role-playing scenarios with a trusted adult. Teens who have been distanced from peers who use substances may especially benefit from practicing refusal skills. Encourage teens to give back. Pro-social practices and identity development are strongly linked to the prevention of risky substance use in teens and young adults. Create and provide kids with volunteer opportunities and involvement in social actions that can both empower them and connect teens to serving their larger community. The Unexpected Opportunity to Become Healthier During the Pandemic Although the pandemic has presented teens with new challenges, it has also presented them with an opportunity to become healthier in the long run, as they develop the resilience and mental health techniques that will prepare them for the road ahead. Our job now is to support them and help them bounce back in their own ways. And together, we can keep teens healthy and free from the risks of substance misuse.