While statistics regarding how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected teenagers is fairly easy to find with a simple internet search, the mental health aspect, as always, is a bit more difficult to quantify.
Yet it is one of the main concerns of coaches, teachers, officials and administrators as students — particularly student-athletes — remain sidelined in the state of West Virginia.
On Dec. 30, Gov. Jim Justice announced winter prep sports would be delayed again, this time until March 1, despite all five border states playing as of this week. Add in the perceived hypocrisy of a video depicting New Year’s Eve party at The Greenbrier resort, which is owned by Justice, and the fight to return to the basketball court, swimming pool and wrestling mat is now raging.
Are the concerns of coaches warranted from a mental health standpoint?
Dr. Anji Null is a Charleston-based psychologist of 27 years specializing in children, families and adolescents. Null, like thousands of other people, saw the video and was immediately concerned about the message it sent.
“That was so disheartening and just shocking to me,” Null said. “I think I watched it about five or six times. I’m like, ‘Is this actually from this year?’ Our priorities are so confused. I mean there is a risk if we go to Kroger and go grocery shopping. But I mean, why would you take a risk with something as unnecessary as that in my opinion but not take a risk on necessary things like a child’s education?”
Often, mental health issues take time to materialize, and while Null said she is worried about the long-term ramifications of the pandemic and resulting isolation, she’s already seeing plenty of negative effects among teenagers.
“I’ve had a significant increase in new referrals for kids and adolescents,” Null said. “I usually might see one new person a day. I mean, [now] it’s nothing for me to have three or four new patients on my caseload every day now. Just really an increase in depression and anxiety and then just the social isolation of kids, and I don’t see how kids are not going to be really significantly affected by this in the future. When you think about it, they have lost almost an entire year of their life, which is a lot of milestones for a lot of kids. I mean seniors or kids that were seniors last year.
“It’s changing kids’ entire lives.”
Psychological turmoil can manifest itself in several different ways — depression, anxiety, addiction — and Null said she’s seen a variety of things, but most of it seems to lead back to a general sense of bleakness.
“Well for some kids I’ve seen it just become kind of hopelessness,” Null said. “Just really feeling very kind of frustrated with the situation and kind of, ‘What’s the use,’ and defeated. For some kids they have worked years and years to get to where they are and this was supposed to be their year and just the sense of unfairness of having things taken away, and I have seen kids just become really depressed. I’ve seen kids that were ‘A’ and ‘B’ students that are now failing because they are just experiencing depression and hopelessness and simply don’t have the motivation to even push themselves.”
Along with Justice’s announcement of an extended delay in sports season came an announcement that all middle schools and elementary schools would return to in-person learning on Jan. 19. Also, high schools in counties that aren’t of highest risk according to the state’s color-coded map will return as well.
Null said the human interaction with peers and teachers alike will be a step in the right direction, but for student athletes, it may not be enough.
“For many kids school is a safe place,” Null said. “Sports may be a big source of self-esteem and something that they feel very positive about themselves. For some kids, sports are big motivators to do well in school. We all know kids that work hard to keep up that 2-point-something [grade-point] average so that they can continue playing sports and they are losing so much of that motivation.”
Keeping the spread of the virus to a minimum is paramount, and taking the proper measures to keep sports safe — masks, social distancing, crowd limitations — are necessary.
But Null believes that the lack of awareness and research on mental health through the pandemic has shifted the scales significantly and that the consequences could be significant if kids continue to take the brunt of socially distanced isolation.
“I think physical health, while it is definitely important, I think it is really being prioritized with this virus to the detriment of mental health,” Null said. “I mean, at what price? We want to keep people safe, we want to keep the virus down, but at what price is this playing on people’s mental health, especially if this continues for the next several months into a year or even two years?
“There is all kinds of research and statistics out there for the virus spread and how much it spreads in schools versus nursing homes and all of that, but I haven’t been able to find one single piece of research talking about the mental health aspects of it with statistics.
“It really feels like they don’t even want to consider the mental health part in all of this. And kids really are the ones that are taking the brunt of it in a lot of ways. It seems like especially in West Virginia, it is kids activities that are being restricted more than anything. I mean bars are open and restaurants are open and casinos are open and New Year’s Eve parties are being held and our kids can’t play a ball game or don’t seem to have the right to their in-person education.”
As for her professional opinion as to whether the rewards of prep sports are worth the risk, Null said it should be up to every individual and family.
“The scientific research does not show there is a lot of spread because of sports, it has shown very, very minute spread in sporting activities or schools,” Null said. “Kids are not super spreaders of this virus.
“I think it is a personal decision that I feel like families and the athletes and the kids themselves need to be able to make. I know some families have some situations where they are at risk and they may choose to not allow their child to participate, or the child even may choose not to participate and that is OK. But I feel like kids do need to be able to make that choice themselves.”
Finally, Null stressed the importance of parents checking on their kids whether they are athletes or not. Suicidal thoughts have also become more common in the children and teenagers Null treats and she explained that there are several warning signs to look for.
“I have seen so many kids with depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation, so just be aware of significant changes,” Null said. “Major changes in sleeping or appetite or isolating or for younger kids, some of the regressive behaviors, even things like bedwetting or not wanting to sleep alone. Those are all signs that emotionally your child may not be doing well and they should follow up with a mental health expert if they have concerns.”