Learning From Lockdown: Supporting Teen Mental Health

Wellness counselors from Jefferson Union High School District offer online support to students

This audio piece first appeared on KALW‘s Crosscurrents

2020 was definitely not the year that recent high school graduate Anna was expecting. She’s 18-years-old and asked to use a pseudonym to protect her privacy. Instead of a senior year on campus with her friends, Anna spent most of it at home. In her bedroom. Logging onto classes on a laptop in her closet.

Anna says she had already experienced anxiety attacks before lockdown. But having to join classes from home introduced a whole set of new challenges. And being cooped up at home with her family was really hard.

She says they fought over the littlest of things “like who finished the peanut butter, who finished the yogurt.”

Anna’s experience is quite common. Emotional and behavioral health challenges in teens were already a growing concern before the pandemic. Shelter-in-place just made these challenges worse. So much so, reported suicide attempts increased almost two fold at some points in 2020, compared to 2019.

Research from last year found that remote learning, isolation and disruption in sleep or eating habits can all contribute to teen stress and anxiety.

Laura Fraser is a San Francisco-based psychotherapist who works in private practice with adolescents and families. She says the isolation and the lack of activity removed a huge source of how people can care for themselves. “Which has only exacerbated already existing anxiety and depression and eating disorders and all kinds of things. Family tensions, too,” says Fraser.

Teenagers are social creatures, she says. Their interactions at this age with friends and other people help them develop relationship skills and navigate emotional closeness and distance.

And social interaction is also essential for another reason. Fraser says it’s common for adolescents to compare themselves with their peers, thinking others have it all figured out.

“And so those fears get loud, and part of the way we find out that those fears are only that — fears — is by all the incidental interactions that take place in a day,” she explains.

Of course, those interactions may not always be positive. But being physically on campus can provide a safe environment for students to express themselves.

Fraser says: “So maybe they’re walking down the hall and somebody gives them a big smile or somebody runs up to them and says, ‘Hey, you know that thing you said? It totally cracked me up in class today!’”

And those things are great, she says, because that provides students with “a store of evidence to fight against the fears that they have about how they are in the world.”

In-person learning has other benefits. Anna’s parents are very strict with her, based on their own family traditions. So school was a sanctuary that allowed her to be herself and have conversations that she’d never have at home.

Anna admits that she became “kind of a loner” when her two friends moved away during lockdown: “I’m not really that much of a sociable person anymore… those were my only two friends.”

Melissa Ambrose is wellness coordinator for Jefferson Union High School District in San Mateo County. She hears stories like Anna’s all the time.

Ambrose says that, over lockdown, overcrowded homes, financial distress and family trauma added to students’ stress about home learning.

“These kids have had a year and a half of building the habit of lying in bed, not being dressed, eating, you know, whatever they’re eating in bed. Scrolling through Instagram, tuning into their class and napping intermittently,” she says.

To counter this, Ambrose and other Jefferson Union wellness counselors joined virtual classrooms and hosted small group chats. They also launched Instagram feeds with wellness tips and information on finding mental health counselling if you don’t have insurance.

And they hosted a suicide prevention night with breakout rooms in several languages to reach as many parents and caregivers as possible.

Other solutions to the loss of in-person time came from the students themselves. Last October, Anna and other teens in the Jefferson Union school district decided to make a podcast, called It’s Always Something. They experimented with different styles and topics. MK Munoz, who often leads the podcast discussions, says a good example of this was when insurrectionists stormed the U.S. capitol on January 6.

“That happened like five hours before our normal meeting. It’s like, yo, the capital is under attack. Y’all want to talk about it?” she says.

Making the shows gave the students a regular day and time to meet. Kind of like the locker chat and lunchtime banter that they lost last year.

Anna’s just started classes at a local community college. But she hopes to continue helping with the podcast if she has time, because she likes how being involved makes her feel.

Many California schools are working on programming for mental health this coming year. In addition to pandemic-related federal funds for K-12 schools, the state budget approved in July provides $4 billion over five years to help school and college students cope with anxiety, depression and stress.

report from a coalition of bipartisan education groups — including the California PTA and the California Teachers Association — has urged schools to use their COVID funding to support mental health programs this year.

The report recommends school districts take six weeks to offer students, families and educators what they call “a restorative restart.”

Recommendations include conducting regular student wellness screenings and providing mental health support.

Given teaching pressures, though, many schools may not take that recommended time.

Ambrose says it takes time for post traumatic stress to set in and become activated. “So I think like around December, January, we’re going to start to see the mental health impact both on the adults and the students,” she says.

Ambrose has enlisted the help of a trauma therapist who has worked with students affected by the Paradise and other California wildfires. A grant from the government’s Mental Health Student Services Act will enable the school district to deliver a Stanford-developed social emotional learning curriculum with weekly classes for ninth and tenth graders.

The district also hired three new mental health staff members. Each of its five high schools now has multiple mental health workers to support students.

Ambrose says it’s important to acknowledge that students lost some significant “connectedness and humanity and well being” over lockdown, and then tackle that. She concludes: “Our job is to recreate connections, recreate humanity, recreate resilience. And love the hell out of them and love the hell out of each other.”

September is National Suicide Prevention Month. For more information about mental health and wellness support, contact:

California Parent & Youth Helpline: 877-427-2736

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

Crisis Textline: Text HOME to 741-741

The Trevor Project (for LGBTQ+ youth): 1-866-488-7386 or text START to 678-678

California Governor Gavin Newsom fights recall

This story first appeared on Al Jazeera

In the week that Californians mark a year of lockdown living, California Governor Gavin Newsom is launching a vigorous campaign to defend his seat in a potential recall election.

Newsom, a Democrat, has largely removed himself from commenting on the recall effort until now, focusing instead on his administration’s work to reduce the spread of coronavirus and to ensure California’s 40 million residents get their COVID-19 vaccinations.

With Wednesday’s deadline looming for recall supporters to submit voter petitions to election offices in the state’s 58 counties, Newsom launched an anti-recall campaign on Monday with the tweet: “I won’t be distracted by this partisan, Republican recall — but I will fight it. There is too much at stake.”

By Tuesday, he hit the airwaves and acknowledged the recall is inevitable, telling the TV show The View: “This one appears to have the requisite signatures.”

So, what’s behind this effort to remove Newsom, who won re-election in 2018 with 62 percent of the vote?

COVID fuels the recall campaign

Recall supporters announced last week that their petition had received more than two million signatures – well beyond the roughly 1.5 million verified names that they will need to trigger a recall election. That is equivalent to 12 percent of the total votes cast in the last gubernatorial election in 2018.

This latest move to recall Newsom (the sixth since he took office) began life in February 2020 when Orrin Heatlie, a retired Yolo County Sheriff’s Office sergeant, filed a notice of intent to circulate a recall petition. It claimed that the governor has enacted laws that were detrimental to Californians, from favouring foreign nationals and overruling the will of the people on the death penalty, to creating high taxation and homelessness.

Since the petition went live last June, it has been boosted by support from critics of Newsom’s handling of the coronavirus.

COVID-19 has been brutal in California. The latest figures show the state has experienced more than 3.5 million cases and about 55,000 deaths. Latino and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander groups have a disproportionate number of cases relative to their population in the state. Vaccine rollout inequities have resulted in Black and Latino communities not getting the shots they need. And people 65 and above have experienced a disproportionate number of deaths.

While Newsom has overseen the setup of mass vaccination sites in Oakland and Los Angeles and says equity is his “North Star” for vaccinating the state’s diverse population, community health centres say they are not receiving enough doses for their at-risk, hard-to-reach patients. Public health experts have attributed this to a “Balkanisation” of vaccine distribution, dependent upon the county or health provider.

But in a recent interview, Newsom admitted that ensuring California’s most hard-hit residents got the COVID-19 vaccine first should have been the priority all along. He recently announced California would set aside 40 percent of all vaccines for people in its most vulnerable communities. He told KQED: “In many respects, we could have gone a little earlier with this overlay.”

A recent poll conducted by the University of California, Berkeley, Institute of Governmental Studies found fewer than one in three Californians (31 percent) thought Newsom was doing an excellent or good job in handling the pandemic overall, down from 49 percent last September.

Restrictive measures
In March 2020, Newsom enacted the first statewide stay-at-home order, limiting Californians to only essential trips for grocery shopping, medical care, walks and exercise. Non-essential businesses such as hair salons, gyms and museums were forced to shut their doors temporarily during the lockdown. At the time, Newsom argued that the measures were needed to “bend the curve” on the outbreak, and would help to ease pressure on the healthcare system and hospital beds.

The slow reopening of the state’s public schools and businesses have also caused frustration. Then there was the story of California’s unemployment benefits fraud during the pandemic. Newsom’s attendance at a Napa restaurant birthday party despite state restrictions on gatherings was another blot on the copybook. (Newsom has since admitted the latter was a mistake.)

While the strict measures won the governor praise in the face of rising coronavirus cases statewide, they have also provoked frustration among many Californians, including business owners. According to research by Yelp, about 40,000 small businesses had shut by September and half of these were permanent closures.

At his recent State of the State address, Newsom said of the stay-at-home order: “We agonised about the sacrifices it would require. We made sure that science – not politics – drove our decisions.”

Randy Economy is senior adviser for the California Patriot Coalition – the group behind the recallgavin2020 campaign. A former broadcaster who also worked on Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign, Economy refutes claims that the recall campaign is a partisan one.

“Right now, 38 percent of those people who have signed our petition are anything other than Republicans,” Economy told Al Jazeera. “They are Democrats and ‘decline to state’ and third party registration individuals.”

Economy argued that the campaign has gained momentum because of the governor’s performance through the pandemic: “He has failed to lead in the time when we needed a leader. He put 40 million of us under house arrest for a year.”

Launching the anti-recall campaign on Monday, Newsom said he would fight the effort: “Getting Californians vaccinated, our economy safely reopened, and our kids back in school are simply too important to risk.”

The anti-recall campaign claims that its opponents are a “partisan, Republican coalition of anti-maskers, anti-vaxxers, QAnon conspiracy theorists and Trump supporters” who threaten California’s efforts to fight COVID-19.

Newsom’s political strategist, Dan Newman, argues that the recall is an attempt to install a Trump supporter as governor of a progressive state.

“It won’t distract or deter the governor from his focus on vaccinating and reopening,” said Newman. But a recall election will be “an enormously expensive circus for taxpayers”, he pointed out.

“It’s likely to cost taxpayers more than $100 million and that’s money – and energy and attention – that would be better served accelerating vaccinations and supporting schools so they can reopen safely and helping support small businesses and families who have suffered from the pandemic,” Newman said.

As of this week, California has administered more than 12 million vaccine doses and its COVID-19 case rate is down 27 percent in the last week. About two-thirds of the state’s counties are in red tier, which allows for limited indoor reopening of restaurants, theatres and museums. This return to normality could play well for Newsom in the event of a recall election later this year.

What happens next?

Wednesday marks the last day signatures can be gathered for the recall petition. County election officials have until April 29 to verify the signatures and if there are 1,495,709 valid signatures ultimately certified by the California secretary of state, the recall process can proceed, with an election expected by October.

The recall ballot will consist of two questions: Support for the recall and candidate choice. A majority vote is required on the first question. The candidate with the most votes on the second question would win the election, no majority required.

There have been 55 attempts in California history to recall a governor, but the only successful one was in 2003 when Democrat Gray Davis was recalled and replaced by actor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican.

Several Republicans are signalling their interest in potentially taking on Newsom in a recall election, including conservative activist Mike Cernovich; John Cox, who lost to Newsom in 2018; and former San Diego mayor, Kevin Faulconer.

A recent poll by Emerson College Polling found that 58 percent of California voters think it is time for someone new and only 42 percent would re-elect Newsom, which could spell challenges ahead even if he survives a recall.