Turns Out That Being Around People Can Be Uncomfortable After A Year Of Isolation
For many Coloradans, the pandemic has led to elevated levels of stress, isolation and anxiety, but the slow return to living life in-person can come with challenges too.
Max Knoll, an 18-year old senior at Fossil Ridge High School in Fort Collins, has experienced mental health ups and downs throughout the pandemic, particularly during remote learning.
“COVID was just almost a lot of nothingness, really,” Max said. “Because every day you would just get out of bed and go to school and the school wasn't at school, it was a computer at your desk like five feet from your bed.”
At one point, Max hadn’t left his house in a month.
“I'd say I was definitely suffering from depression for a while there, just a lot of staying in bed. The weekends were mostly sleeping and eating,” Max said. “A lot of the time I just couldn’t feel my legs at a certain point because I'm just laying in bed all day.”
In Colorado, many family doctors, clinicians and hospitals have been seeing more kids coming in for depression and anxiety, as well as for other issues like sleeplessness, emotional meltdowns and self-harm.
“So for teenagers, the level of severity has become astonishing to me, as somebody that's been doing this work for almost 20 years,” said Dr. Kathy Sigda, a psychologist at Mountain Crest Outpatient Clinic in Fort Collins. “Kids with anxiety are now afraid to leave the house.”
‘It was really surreal just seeing so many faces’
After months of remote and then hybrid learning, Fossil Ridge students went back to in-person school in mid-March.
“It was really weird... We're all wearing masks but there is no social distancing when there's that many people,” Max said. “It was really surreal just seeing so many faces.”
With so many students around, Max was worried about a coronavirus outbreak. Plus, his friend group had gone through a “breakup” right before the pandemic. With the academic year coming to a close and school activities, like clubs, restricted, starting over has been tough.
“It was hard making friends other than like the people you sat at the same table for lunch,” Max said.
Students have responded to the return to in-person learning in a variety of ways. For some, this has been a welcome shift — for others, it comes with awkwardness.
“We're seeing kids who are much more attuned to their social media, to their phones, to computer games, to those kinds of things where they're not directly engaging with people,” said Kristin Dalton, the social emotional learning facilitator for Greeley-Evans School District 6. “And that's challenging. We're not seeing that social interaction.”
Dalton has also seen students who previously had strong social skills acting less mature.
“So, juniors and seniors running around kind of poking each other and things we would typically see in middle school because they're not sure how to create a new interaction,” Dalton said.
During a year in which adults and children alike used social skills much less than usual, many have instead developed a heightened sense of environment, with an awareness of elements such as proximity to others, germs on surfaces and ventilation systems.
“There's almost like a deprogramming that we need to do with ourselves and give extra space and extra conversation for the kids to go through that deprogramming also,” Kim Collins, the chief clinical officer at North Range Behavioral Health, said.
Uncertainty about the future follows the return to in-person school
Getting comfortable being around people again will likely just take some time, but experts are worried about lasting mental health impacts of the pandemic on young people, particularly for kids who experienced significant stress and trauma, such as losing a loved one to the virus or serious economic struggles. Other experts bring up feelings of uncertainty about the future or missed rites of passage, impacts that are difficult to pin down with any precision.
“It's been such a surreal thing, like a collective fever dream, and even if someone hasn't been diagnosed with depression due to staying inside all day or something — you're still going to remember how hard COVID was,” Max Knoll said, noting that he did find ways to cope during the pandemic, like walking with his mom and connecting with others during video games.
Max and other seniors at Fossil Ridge High School will graduate this weekend. He is hoping to take a gap year before going to art school, but is unsure what travel is going to look like in the coming months.
“It almost feels undeserved because I can't even remember most of the past year,” Max said. “I have my robe, my cap and gown. I can't see graduating yet because I just haven't seen the past year as being in school.”