Children have been hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic and mental stressors quickly pile up, disproportionally affecting racially diverse youth. Teen suicide and depression rates are as alarming as deaths from the virus, but few mental health resources are available to address this shadow of the pandemic, especially within communities of color.
According to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in March 2022, 37% of high school students reported they experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic while 44% said they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year. More than half of these students reported experiencing emotional abuse by a parent or other adult in the home, and 11% suffered physical abuse by a parent, including being hit, beaten, kicked, or physically harmed.
“The pandemic has exacerbated the mental health crisis for young people. It is just out of control. I’m seeing kids every day who are suffering from anxiety and depression,” said Dr. Jennifer Miller, who serves with East Bay Pediatrics in Oakland, California.
“Kids are overwhelmed. And therapists are over-burdened, not able to answer parents’ calls. We had hoped that returning children to school would make a difference, but for many children, it has not.”
Jocelyn Frias, the daughter of undocumented immigrants, is a youth leader with LOUD for Tomorrow, a non-profit, volunteer-driven organization aiming to transform California schools and communities through civic engagement, advocacy, community healing, and education, including information on the safety and efficacy of COVID-19 vaccination and boosters to help ease anxiety.
On May 14, Frias graduated from UC Merced with dual degrees in political science and philosophy. She is the first member of her family to attend college.
In an interview with Ethnic Media Services, Frias chronicled the struggles she and her friends faced as they navigated online learning amid the pandemic, and other challenges due to a lack of peer engagement and having nowhere to turn to aid in their mental health.
You just graduated from UC Merced: congratulations. How did the pandemic impact your ability to finish university?
I definitely noticed the increase in academic obstacles. I failed two courses for the first time in my life. Staring at a screen was what I did; I could not focus most of the time. I would clean, sleep, draw, or do anything else.
Online learning was not easy for my brain. I felt alone and drained. It wasn’t just classes that switched to online, it was also conferences, networking, organizational meetings, and work. We literally did everything in the exact same spot all day.
I was expected to be this machine of productivity, but I just couldn’t do it. Especially as someone with mental illnesses and navigating other personal life obstacles. I was struggling financially and facing a housing crisis in Merced on top of everything else. I genuinely wanted to drop out after numerous breakdowns.
Did you seek professional help?
I was officially diagnosed with a generalized anxiety disorder and depression in the summer of 2020. I was put on prescribed medication, but I couldn’t exactly open up to my family about these things as mental health is not really a thing to them.
There were constant isolation periods and anxiety and panic attacks. Working, sleeping, and eating in the same room was not healthy.
Navigating mental illness and neurodivergent assessments is not easy during any time period, especially during a global pandemic.
How easy was it to find a mental health provider?
Many of my friends sought out mental health providers. At UC Merced, we had access to CAPS (Counseling and Psychological Services). Those services were free which was amazing. Therapy and different healthcare services can be very expensive, so that was such a privilege.
But there were limited providers and appointments, so you could go weeks without an appointment. The only way to get in sooner was to answer draining questions about whether you were serious about harming yourself or someone else. That always bothered me because the department seemed to be reactionary rather than preventative.
Do you have to be at an absolute breaking point to see a provider within the next 24 hours? That just doesn’t sound right.
Many people have talked about the lack of culturally appropriate mental health experts. When you—or your friends—sought out help, did you find your provider could relate to your concerns?
This is such an important question. We absolutely need more mental health experts who aren’t just white people or men. I say this because during many of my sessions I would talk about my undocumented family members and their immigration story, my queerness, my upbringing in an unincorporated community in the Central Valley, my Chicana identity, my low-income background, my first-gen status, and other identities. I would just get nods or sympathy and to me that was irritating.
(EMS note: fewer than 6 percent of mental health providers in California are people of color)
We have heard that the vaccine has given people peace of mind to resume some of their pre-pandemic activities. How has getting vaccinated impacted you?
It’s definitely given me more peace of mind as I navigate social spaces, grocery shopping, and other day-to-day activities. Especially because I live in Kern County, a very conservative area which seems to think COVID-19 just vanished.
I am slowly trying to do things like go to the gym and other populated activities; I always notice I am one of very few people with masks on. Knowing I am vaccinated and boosted makes me feel a ton better.
I have immediate family members who lost their loved ones to COVID-19 and it was not a great experience to say the least. I definitely never want to go through something so traumatic again.
I actually got COVID in December 2020 before the vaccine was available. It was super awful for me: constant migraines, my body felt so sore, I had trouble breathing, and I lost my sense of smell which never came back the same for me. I also almost missed Christmas with my immediate family as I was three hours away. That was difficult because social interactions are important to me. Thankfully, I tested negative a day or two before.
So, if your body is able to, please get vaccinated.
EMS Note: Parents can support their kids’ mental health by getting them vaccinated. Over 20 million children and teens in the US have been safely protected from the worst outcomes of COVID-19 by getting vaccinated—allowing them to thrive and participate in sports and activities that enrich their lives.
Photo caption: Jocelyn Frias graduated from UC Merced on May 14, with dual degrees in political science and philosophy. (Photo courtesy of Jocelyn Frias)