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Tough Stuff

Is 2020 taking a toll on your mental health? You're not alone—and we're here to help

Is all this *waves hands* starting to take a mental toll?

You're not alone. In honor of Mental Illness Awareness Week, here's how to understand + cope with, well, everything you're feeling rn.

Just 10 months ago, back in the Before Times, when we were all planning our New Year's Eve outfiits and sharing our glow-up goals for the new decade, none of us could have imagined what 2020 would have in store for us.

Despite the fact that lockdowns only started for most of the country in the spring, it's now hard for many to remember life before the COVID-19 pandemic. Before the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. Before all the strife surrounding the upcoming election. Altogether, it can feel like we've been stuck in this stress soup for a whole lot longer than a few seasons.

Given all this, it's easy to overlook the fact that our world has actually undergone a pretty dramatic transformation—at a speed none of us were prepared for. And if all that dizzying change has taken a toll on your mental health lately, know that you are not alone.

Welcome to the struggle

"We're seeing a lot of people coming to our centers in crisis because recent events are exacerbating mental health issues that were just underneath the surface," reports Heather Monroe, LCSW and senior clinician at Newport Academy, a mental health center for teens and families.

No doubt, the pandemic has been especially bad news for teens who already struggle with mental illness. Take Paige B., 19, who has OCD and grapples with feelings of anxiety and depression. Quarantine threw a wrench into her usual coping mechanisms. "I would use distractions or have things on my calendar to look forward to so I wouldn't feel down or lost," she says of her pre-pandemic routine. "Now, you can't really have that, you can't really plan ahead. There's no way of knowing what's going to happen next." 

That sense of uncertainty adds to the stress that many girls already are experiencing. "The pandemic heightened my feelings of loneliness," says Diana S., 16. "I don't know when I'm going to be able to do the things I used to do, no less be with my friends again." 

And perhaps the most crushing part? The roller-coaster aspect of the COVID-19 crisis. When lockdown restrictions began to ease, 17-year-old Sarah D.'s mood began to improve. "But then everything came crashing back down again," she says. "I'm losing hope in my country...and in everybody."

Uncharted territory

The challenges of this time have been taking a toll on teens who *aren't* used to grappling with mental health issues, too.

This year, the percentage of teens who discussed depression with their primary care physician nearly doubled—from 23% to 41%—and ADHD diagnoses rose by 66%, according to a study from Athenahealth.

Ella F., 15, found herself feeling uncharacteristically down as she started school. "The pandemic has definitely taken away the carefree teenage experience we're supposed to have," she shares. "I just feel like it's robbing us of our last few years of high school. It's a very heavy thing to be going through."

Open up to others

We're going to come straight out and say it: If the events of 2020 have been hard for you, it's important to seek help (in fact, it's *always* important to seek help any time you need it). 

Maybe that help is in the form of a family member. Maybe it's professional, like a counselor, doctor or therapist. Or maybe it's just a friend and some serious self-care. Any and all of these solutions could be the right one for you. 

What's the first step if you're struggling? Ask for support. "Tell your parents [or another trusted person] that you need to speak to them, but you just want them to listen for a second. If they agree, share with them how you are feeling," suggests Monroe. When you tell someone you need help, "they are invited into your pain. You're no longer alone." 

And if that person isn't the resource you hoped they'd be? "Find a teacher, counselor, clergyperson or friend who can hear you," Monroe advises. Not sure where to turn IRL? Look online. "There are so many groups on social media that share the same beliefs as you that you can join. It's a great way to feel supported."

Putting yourself first

We know you've heard it a hundred times from us, but mindfulness is key right now. The techniques at the top of your list? Journaling and meditation.

Both of these practices teach you how to get in touch with and identify your feelings as they are happening, a practice with a long-lasting impact. "The coping skills you develoop as a teenager become the go-to coping skills of your adult life," reveals Monroe.

In other words, the sooner you are able to learn to acknowledge and manage your emotions in order to steer yourself through life's rocky waters, the better equipped you'll be to tackle troubles in the years to come.

Do something creative

If you think you're not creative and this doesn't apply to you, think again. "Creativity doesn't need to mean art," says Monroe. "It's really anything you like to do that helps you express how you feel or gets energy out of your body."

That can mean drawing or playing music, sure, but it can also include hiking, reorganizing your room or doing a jigsaw puzzle—anything that involves exercising your brain in an enjoyable way. At its core, creativity "is a way for us to process feelings from start to finish in a way that doesn't hurt us," shares Monroe.

Get outside

There's a reason that parks are so popular, campgrounds are coveted and hiking trails are heavily trafficked right now: Spending time outside is hugely restorative. 

"I like to go on walks," shares Amma O., 19. "Last month, GirlTrek had a walking meditation for 30 minutes each day where they would talk about a specific Black woman in history. It was a great way to just come back to the present."

This too shall pass

Remember this: Just because things are hard right now doesn't mean they will be forever. "It's really important we realize we are resilient and we get through things. This is part of our biological makeup," says Monroe.

So whether it lasts another week or another year, the stress of the pandemic *will* eventually come to an end. Until then, the most any of us can do is keep going—one day at a time.

GET HELP—FAST:

Life during the pandemic has been tough for many. That doesn't mean you should avoid asking for help because "it could be so much worse." What you're struggling with is real and you deserve to feel better. Remember: Mental health issues manifest in many ways, so if you're always feeling low, worrying excessively or avoiding the activities and people you used to love, reach out.

If you need to talk to someone—about anything...
Text "HOME" to the Crisis Text Line at 741741. They have trained counselors at the ready to discuss everything from the coronavirus to anxiety to suicidal thoughts.

If you need to remember you're not alone...
If it seems like everyone else is living their best life and you're struggling, check out OK2Talk.org, where you can read the mental health-related stories of other teens (and share your own).

If you need help finding resources in your area...
Check out To Write Love on Her Arms, enter your zip code and what you need (whether it's counseling or food assistance). 

If you're having suicidal thoughts...
Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 right this second. No matter what's going on, you can get through this—and they can help. 

WHY IT'S ESPECIALLY IMPORTANT FOR BIPOC GIRLS
TO SEEK A SAFE SPACE

This year has been tough on everyone, but girls from marginalized communities are finding that the events of 2020 have forced them to confront some difficult feelings.

From the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on communities of color to the increased attention on anti-Black violence, the stress is a lot to bear—and it's taking a toll. "I feel like I have finally come face to face with the amount of racial trauma I have as a Black woman," shares Cassie, 19.

Jasmin Pierre, founder of the Black-oriented mental health app The Safe Place, believes the pressure to be seen as "strong" may be adding to Black girls' mental load. "It's like that stigma has been ingrained in us forever: okay, all this stuff is going on and you just have to be strong and keep going forward. But that way of thinking has literally been killing a lot of us."

So, what to do? Pierre stresses the importance of finding culturally competent resources, especially if you're reeling from all the news coverage of racial violence. Safe Place, for example, has a section specifically focused on processing viral racism or police brutality, including a guided meditation.

And in all situations, Pierre recommends journaling, since Black girls "aren't really taught to express our emotions. With journaling, nobody else has to see that—it's just you and the journal."

 

FYI: This story originally ran in our October/November 2020 issue. Read the print mag for free *today* when you click HERE.

by Keely Weiss; edited for digital by Katherine Hammer | 11/4/2020
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