This should be one of the happiest times of their lives: high school and college graduation ceremonies, yearbook signings, choosing a college or grad school, or finding first jobs.
Instead, teens and very young adults are coming of age during a pandemic that has dashed dreams and cherished traditions, may change the college experience and dented the U.S. and world economies.
Although COVID-19 stay-at-home orders are lifting gradually, these young people still face unprecedented restrictions and futures that appear uncertain. High school juniors are preparing to take college entrance exams and advanced placement classes when it’s unclear when their high school campuses will reopen.
Those who are planning to head to college in the fall are wondering whether college will be worthwhile financially if it will be an online education instead of an in-person, campus experience.
"I just talked with a high school senior who doesn’t know what college will be like in the fall," says UCI Health adolescent and adult psychiatrist Dr. Anju Hurria, director of the UCI School of Medicine wellness program. "He feels that it’s a lot of money to just learn online, so he’s looking into taking a job for a gap year."
Build on skills
When Hurria works with young people who are anxious, fearful and even depressed during these challenging times, one of her primary goals is to encourage flexibility and encourage students to build practical skills.
“When there is a crisis, it creates opportunities for growth and innovation," she says. "It is important to validate feelings of loss but also point out areas of opportunity and ways to be resilient.”
Many students missed graduation ceremonies and feel sadness at not getting to celebrate their achievement with friends and families. Fizzle instead of fireworks.
These teenagers aren’t without perspective: They’re aware that missing out on a cap and gown isn’t as important as people’s health and livelihoods. That doesn’t make the sadness go away, however.
Many families are doing what they can to mark the experience and make it feel special. Hurria also suggests that parents should ask the graduate, what would make this time special? They should also encourage reaching out to friends and even special teachers online to help bring their rite of passage to a more meaningful conclusion.
Another client of Hurria’s received a prized internship with a dream company, one she’d dreamed of working for permanently. The internship is going forward, but only online. It won’t be the experience the young woman had hoped for, and there will be fewer opportunities to network and shine within the organization. But they talked about extra steps she could take to stand out during her internship, and to seek out online platforms to help her network and find mentors at the company.
Frustration at COVID-19 precautions
The extended time of staying indoors, wearing masks and avoiding in-person social situations is wearing on everyone, including teens and college-age students.
“That first month, people were adjusting and watching Netflix,” Hurria says. “Now people are recognizing the long-term consequences.”
At first, people thought school might open in time to finish out the academic year.
Now it appears that fall semester might either be online, as California State University campuses are doing, or some hybrid experience. There are far fewer summer jobs, leaving students with an unscheduled summer and less money.
For anxious teenagers and college students, creating structure during their days can help, Hurria says. She recommends that students use this time to accomplish meaningful things and build skills that will help them in the future. Contributing to the world around us makes life feel more fulfilled.
Hurria says one student began by picking up food donations from a local restaurant and delivering them to the food bank. Others are starting to grow a vegetable garden or master basic cooking skills.
“One client just sent me a photo of a fried egg on toast,” she says. “That might not seem like a lot, but it’s a good thing, to know how to make an egg or cook rice.”
College graduates or those nearing graduation are facing another worry: How will they find jobs in the damaged economy?
Hurria talks with them about pivoting their areas of interest to where the jobs will be, such as laboratory sciences, and seeking out mentors who can guide them.
Family issues also are often on teens’ minds, especially when parents are facing furloughs and unemployment for an undetermined length of time.
Family separations also are taking a toll. One of Hurria's clients was especially sad that he hasn’t been able to visit his grandmother, with whom he’s always been close. She lives nearby but he knows how important it is to protect her from infection. He has been trying to video chat and call her more often.
With anxiety and depression are increasing among people of all ages, Hurria encourages people to reach out for help, and for parents to seek assistance for teens who are having challenges coping.
For anyone having suicidal thoughts, Hurria says they need to know they don't have to struggle alone. They can seek help by calling the National Suicide Hotline at 800-273-8255 or making an appointment at UCI Health adolescent or adult Psychiatry Services at 714-456-5902.