The unseen mental toll of the pandemic

Lockdown. Masks. Zoom. More Zoom.

Sitting at home. No going to school. No going to the office. No getting together with friends or family outside of your immediate household.

The restrictions of the past year have taken a toll on all of us. But as we report in our cover story this week, it’s been particularly tough on teenagers, who are at a critical stage in their emotional and social development and missing key milestones.

Teens aren’t doing the normal things teens do, from sports and other extracurriculars to socializing with their peers. Face-to-face interactions have been replaced by virtual ones almost exclusively, and while teens report positive feelings about connecting with friends via technology, the same can’t be said for how they experience online school. Being isolated in general is producing anxiety, depression, feelings of hopelessness and anger. One teen described it as a persistent “numbness.”

Experts who spoke with us said they’ve never seen anything like it. UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland reports twice the usual number of teens hospitalized for eating disorders, and a 75 percent increase in adolescents seeking urgent mental health services. A San Francisco clinic that offers free mental health help to young people has a waiting list for the first time. And those are just two examples.

Even with the good news about vaccinations and the promised lifting of lockdown restrictions, many teenagers can see only the day-to-day, and that hasn’t changed much if at all. They are still home, wearing masks, missing school and attending milestone events virtually that should be held in person. It’s no wonder they feel they’ve lost a year. They have.

In the coming months, our Jewish community, along with the rest of the country, will be dealing with the logistics of reopening. Two other stories in this issue examine aspects of that reopening — one looking at how synagogues are slowly resuming indoor worship, and another celebrating the return of in-person family visitation at our Jewish senior homes.

We’ve all experienced the pandemic differently,  depending on our age and stage of life. When life gets back to some semblance of normal, it’s not a given that we will quickly return to who we were a year ago. We are resilient, but we are also vulnerable. This is what our teens are telling us, and we are listening.

J. Editorial Board

The J. Editorial Board pens editorials as the voice of J.