El Paso teens call for more mental health awareness amid pandemic

El Paso News

EL PASO, Texas (KTSM) — School is back in session in some form or another for many students across the Borderland, but many students feel like they’re in limbo. 

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), adolescents are a particularly vulnerable group that is undergoing a difficult time of transition amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The lives of teens have changed dramatically over the course of the last six months: schools have shut down, jobs have been terminated and lives have been lost as students try to navigate the already-difficult high school landscape. 

“I texted my advisor and said, ‘I can’t. I just can’t do it today,’” Nyla Hajj, a senior at Coronado High School told KTSM 9 News. 

Feelings of frustration, hopelessness and despair are new to Hajj, who is member of Student Council, editor of the yearbook and an AP student.

As the pandemic has complicated almost every aspect of our lives, it’s also impeding students’ ability to learn and socialize. 

“Lockdown, for some adolescents, is experienced as insufferable,” according to the NCBI. 

“It’s hard to stay motivated and passionate about learning or doing anything in particular,” says Hajj. “Most of the time I just want to sleep because I’m right next to my bed.”

For many teens, social relations have been disrupted and many are feeling disconnected as eye contact is reduced to awkward moments on screens rather than meaningful in-person exchanges. The conditions of isolation and remote learning are conducive to PTSD, depression and anxiety in adolescents, which can greatly affect brain development. 

“As the days go on, and I keep this monotonous routine, I just can’t help but feel like all of this is kind of hopeless,” says Hajj.

According to one study, PTSD in children can cause changes in brain regions responsible for motor, cognitive and behavioral function. These changes can contribute to increased reactivity to perceived threats and reduced emotional regulation. 

Additionally, teens are at risk for developing anxiety if someone they know contracts COVID-19. 

To combat the negative effects of the “new normal,” the El Paso Independent School District is taking steps to ensure students, parents and teachers have resources available to them. 

Laura Schuler, an EPISD counselor who works at Franklin High School, told KTSM 9 News that she and her colleagues are working to promote social and emotional learning throughout the District. 

Schuler said she receives emails from students who report feeling overwhelmed and that the first step is to contact the students’ teachers to help mitigate stress as quickly as possible. 

“We really want to keep those lines of communication open,” Schuler said. “So if students email me and tell me they feel overwhelmed, they feel stressed out, they don’t know where to start — one of the first things we want to do is get ahold of those teachers.” 

In addition to open lines of communication offered by the school, Hajj says educators ought to enhance homework policies and empathy for students’ state of mind.

While EPISD implemented a homework ban to minimize screen time, Hajj says she and other students in AP classes are not exempt because of the academic rigor of the classes. 

“It’s no one’s fault because teachers can’t see what students are and aren’t picking up on in person,” say Hajj. “It’s hard to give feedback because you’re kind of put on blast if you provide feedback and you’re the only one talking.”

Add to that the stressors of multiple advanced courses, cultivating a semblance of a social life and the pressure of voting in an election, and it’s easy to see the kids aren’t quite all right. 

Adolescent students are facing existential challenges of Sisyphean proportion and hope the adults in the room (and Zoom) are paying attention. 

“Most days I’ve felt, just kind of sad,” says Hajj, while talking about her daily school routine. What used to be a full day of friends, learning and extracurriculars amidst the cacophony of school colors and spirit has been replaced by humdrum hours spent at a laptop. 

“It makes me so sad to think that this is my life: I’ve just been sitting at my desk for 10 hours already,  and still have to do it for another five,” says Hajj. “Then I’m going to go to bed and do it all again in the morning.”

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