Can a counselor help a generation catch up on all the pandemic took?

Katie Shepherd Washington Post February 5th 2023

Inside the gym at Paint Branch High School on a rainy Wednesday in January, hundreds of kids gathered during their lunch period in a distinctly pre-pandemic scene: Unmasked, they broke off into groups to play duck-duck-goose, musical chairs, jump rope and other playground games that they hadn’t experienced since the pandemic sent them home from middle school in March 2020.

The teens’ laughter boomed across the waxed floors and kids forgot about the ever-present cellphones in their pockets as they played. “This is our last year to be silly,” said Hanan Jazouli, a junior at the Montgomery County, Md., school, who bounced a rubber ball in a game of four square.

Letting kids be kids is one of the guiding sentiments for guidance counselor Felicia Kimmel, who spent the pandemic years worrying about how to help Hanan’s generation race to catch up on all they missed and cope with what they lost. The tension is taking its toll in Maryland and across the country as the number of teens who report feeling persistently sad or hopeless jumped to more than 44 percent, federal data shows.

Kimmel, 53, said her students have been struggling with resiliency, grit, persistence and perseverance. Teachers lightened workloads and let kids push deadlines during remote and hybrid learning, and students have since struggled to return to pre-pandemic demands of school work. But gradually increasing the workload and giving students academic leeway weren’t enough. She puzzled over what to do.

“Anything that’s hard, the kids seem to back down,” she said.

The crisis of student mental health is much vaster than we realize

The dark-haired woman with red glasses and an easy smile is a legacy educator and 17-year veteran of Paint Branch. She followed in the footsteps of her mother, who taught English at a middle school in New York City where she mentored an 11-year-old who would eventually grow up to be rap mogul Jay-Z.

Kimmel started her career as a teacher before becoming a counselor at Paint Branch, where nearly 60 percent of students are Black, 23 percent are Latino, and more than half qualified for the free and reduced meals servicein the 2021-2022 school year. Even before the pandemic began, students at Paint Branch High had stressful events to cope with. A student was shot while walking to school in 2018, and another brought a pellet gun to campus in January 2020. Since returning to campus, students have been in fights that end up posted to social media.

She described herself as “not always this hyper” as she speed-walked from one end of the gymnasium to the other and back again, watchful for any chance to help the kids keep the event running smoothly.

The stress-relieving recess was part of Kimmel’s ongoing wellness programming aimed at helping Paint Branch students readjust to full-time, in-person learning. Kimmel hosted occasional mindfulness programs before the pandemic, but she ramped up to weekly events this year to give kids a break from the sudden pressure of full-throttle classes and hopefully buck the increasing suicide and youth overdose rates that have been devastating communities across the country and in Montgomery County.

“I’m trying to give these kids coping strategies they may have lost during covid or may have never had,” she said. “If they can take them forward into the rest of their lives, I’ve done my small part.”

Every other Wednesday, she puts on a “coloring and tea” hour during lunch period so the teens can unwind and calm their minds. She has also organized opportunities for students to make “calming jars” filled with sequins, write about their favorite moments in gratitude journals, and spend time cuddling with Lila, a massive black-and-white Newfoundland trained as a therapy dog.

The tools are needed.One day in early 2020, Hanan, Aretha Were and Mistere Moges were working through their last semester of middle school and looking forward to the excitement of freshman year just around the corner. The next, they were sent home as the coronavirus pandemic shut down schools, businesses and other public spaces — not to return to a normal classroom for more than a year.

Now juniors at Paint Branch High School, the girls said this feels like their first real year of high school. They spent their entire freshman year in remote learning and endured hybrid classes for sophomore year at an unfamiliar campus that required constant masking and social distancing.

The adults are trying to figure out how to respond. Paint Branch High prominently features links to mental health resources on its homepage, as does Montgomery County Public Schools. Montgomery County last year allocated $8 million to launch an effort to create wellness centers at each high school in the county, and additional funds are set aside in the county executive’s proposed capital budget that is pending council approval.

Hanan, who loves her AP Chemistry class and wants to work in women’s health after college, said she feels like she is caught between still growing up — and in some ways catching up on the childhood moments she missed because of the pandemic — and starting to think about SATs, graduation, college and her looming future.

“We’re trying to figure things out in so little time,” she added.

Concerns about youths’ mental health predate the pandemic — data collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that between 2009 and 2019 persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness among high school students significantly increased from about 26 percent to 37 percent. And a growing number of teens contemplated and attempted suicide during the decade before the coronavirus first emerged.

That mounting crisis rapidly accelerated in 2020 and 2021, as the isolation and stress of the pandemic weighed heavily on the shoulders of children and teens who were forced out of the classroom. Suicide rates among girls increased by more than 50 percent. And more than a third of high school students reported regularly experiencing poor mental health during the first year of the pandemic.

Many aspects of the pandemic negatively affected kids, according to researchers who identified fears related to covid-19, online learning difficulties, and increased conflict with parents as key drivers making mental health worse for young people.

Students also pointed to increased time on their phones scrolling through social media, less time socializing with peers and profoundly impaired confidence after being isolated from people outside their immediate families for so long. Not to mention the loss of more than a year that they would have spent making new friends and strengthening existing relationships if they had been in school.

“During the pandemic, you were home 24/7,” Hanan said, “it gives you a lot more time to look at yourself and just build on those insecurities that you might have already had before.”

Mistere, who plans to study biology and psychology in Maryland and eventually becoming a neonatologist, said she has noticed that her classmates seem more withdrawn and introverted now. After more than a year of finding connection through the internet, she said her peers are more likely to pull out a phone and scroll on social media when they could be spending time with friends

“It’s much easier to press a ‘friend’ button than to actually go out,” Mistere, 16, said.

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Aretha — who one day hopes to incorporate her blossoming Spanish language skills into her studies and career — said she has noticed a major shift in her teachers, who are now paying close attention to how students are coping at school. Before the pandemic, the 16-year-old said, she had never done a mental health-related activity at school. Now, she has access to counselors, social workers, and even her physics teacher does a mindfulness minute in every class.

“It seems like teachers care more now about mental health than they did before,” she said. “I think it’s a really good thing to see and I don’t want it to stop just because covid is dying down.”

Kimmel said she has already seen a new sense of community forming between the students who get a chance to meet kids outside of class and offline at her events.

During playground games in the gym, Kimmel flitted between groups of kids to make sure they had everything they needed to play unhindered. As the teens raced and jumped rope and bounced balls, even the adults supervising got swept up in the fun, joining in on games and laughing with the students.

“That’s what was so great today,” Kimmel said, “looking around and seeing the joy.”