Social unrest, the COVID-19 pandemic and the start of the virtual school year have all contributed to debilitating depression for some youth. To support students, Anne Arundel County Public Schools (AACPS), the Anne Arundel County Mental Health Agency, the Anne Arundel County Department of Health, and the Office of the County Executive partnered in November for an online event called Coping With Anxiety – Youth In 2020.
Event co-moderators Drake Smith and Amaya Madarang introduced panelists and asked questions posed by their student peers around the county. Smith is the student member on the Anne Arundel County Board of Education and a student at Meade High School. Madarang is a senior at Northeast High School and chairperson of Let’s Talk Justice, a forum for students to discuss racism and social justice in the wake of the murder of George Floyd.
During the November event, students asked about the misconception that mental illness is “all in someone’s head,” how coping mechanisms can reduce anxiety, and how to spot red flags when someone is contemplating suicide.
Being Educated About Mental Illness
Dr. Catherine Gray, clinical director of the Anne Arundel County Mental Health Agency, addressed the misconception that mental illness is more of an imagined problem than a real medical issue.
“When you look at things like depression, sometimes your first symptoms are going to be that extreme fatigue, the lethargy; you just don’t have the energy to do anything,” she said. “With anxiety, you’re talking about things like your chest is racing, your heart is palpitating, you can have excessive sweating, so these are all things that are first warning signs.”
She also emphasized that someone’s mental illness does not define them as a person.
“They are a pianist, they are a runner, a whatever, but the mental health component can be a small part of their experience,” Gray said.
Jennifer Corbin, director of the Anne Arundel Crisis Response System, talked about the ways students can reach out for help.
“There are tons of resources in your school whether it’s your resource officer (your SRO), your guidance counselor, your nurse, your principal,” Corbin said. “Whoever it is you’re comfortable with, you can start the conversation there.”
Severna Park High School sophomore Jayna Monroe said there are resources available, but more diversity among the staff would help her and other students to feel more comfortable.
“There’s not a lot of Black counselors or just administrators that I can talk to,” Jayna said. “I’m currently in the process of changing my pediatrician because I don’t really like how she talks to me, like her bedside manner, but we need to have more diversity within the people that we talk to because not everyone is going to understand our situations, and back to the intergenerational trauma, not everyone is going to understand what we’re going through and what we’re talking about.”
With less social interaction and in-person support because of COVID-19, Meade High School student Beckett Hummer found personal strategies that help her reduce anxiety, and she encouraged her peers to do the same.
“I’ll have something in my hands to keep me busy so I can stay concentrated … but I definitely think that a lot of students are struggling with [anxiety during the school day],” she said. “It’s not all completely normal, but it shouldn’t be shamed upon to feel these anxious feelings, because this is something new for all of us.”
Darin Ford, Anne Arundel County Department of Health family resource coordinator, suggested breathing exercises. “Another coping mechanism is going outside and getting fresh air,” he said.
Gray praised the power of positive thinking.
“If someone frowns down on you, even just shifting that thought pattern to, ‘Maybe they’re having a bad day, maybe they’re not understanding what’s going on in the classroom, maybe it doesn’t have anything to do with me,’” she said. “Visualize yourself being completely calm. You can create a mental picture maybe of you being around your friends when you are comfortable.”
Ryan Voegtlin, AACPS director of student services, said there are plenty of coping mechanisms.
“I think you have to figure out those coping mechanisms and strategies that work for you, whether it’s exercising, whether it’s journaling, or whether it’s gratitude, writing, kindness, meditation or mindfulness,” he said.
It’s easy to miss the warning signs when someone is depressed or contemplating suicide, so students and educators must not only listen when someone talks but also engage and feel out the discussion, Corbin said.
“It takes more than asking someone if they’re OK once, because the first time you ask someone if they’re OK, they’re going to say yes,” she said. “But you have to remember to go back and ask again … its validating that feeling to them and saying, ‘I really care about you. Maybe I can open up with these personal feelings I’m having.’”
Anne Arundel County health officer Dr. Nilesh Kalyanaraman closed out the virtual event with this message to youth: “Be kind to yourself. Be kind to others. Sometimes the best grace we can give is to give ourselves a break.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the Anne Arundel County warmline at 410-768-5522.