I am a mental health professional who has worked with adolescents and young adults for more than 15 years. Though I am not a public health specialist, pediatrician, or an expert who can comment on school reopenings, from where I sit today, I am gravely concerned about the mental health impact of the erratic school closures on our already emotionally and mentally vulnerable youth population. When our public officials roll out and then roll back school reopening plans in the span of days or weeks, the mental health whiplash is tremendous. And we are seeing the effects in real time.
General mental health impacts of back-to-school
Across the country we are in the midst of an unprecedented mental health crisis, with young people in the eye of the storm. Research shows that adolescents are already more vulnerable to high levels of stress, sadness, irritability, anger, confusion, and uncertainty, and, according to the American Psychological Association, this generation is more likely than other generations to report poor mental health. Developmentally, adolescents and young adults are still making gains emotionally, hormonally, cognitively, physically, and socially, which makes them more susceptible to mental health problems, most notably depression and anxiety.
Even in the best of times navigating a return to school following summer vacation was a challenge for this age group—requiring huge mental and emotional fortitude, as well as preparation. Social acceptance, body image, grades, parental pressure, peer pressure, and romantic relationships can all weigh heavily on the mind of a young person returning to school.
Now, the coronavirus adds the stressors of navigating technology, fear of personal infection and bringing the virus home, and the loss of social activities and learning opportunities after months of lonesome social isolation.
The importance of predictability
As mental health professionals, we recognize the unique challenges of returning to school in the middle of a pandemic and have been busy preparing young people for the emotional roller coaster. Over the past months, considerable time has been spent helping many young people hone the coping and stress management skills that will help them face the new semester.
A major part of this has been trying to help young people create a plan for reopening. We do this because we know that when young people are given an opportunity to organize themselves around a reliable plan with set expectations, they are better able to regulate their emotions and moods.
This predictability has a stabilizing effect that reduces reactivity and impulsivity, enhances productivity and goal-oriented behavior, and helps adolescents feel safe, secure, and resilient.
With the roller-coaster effect of schools reopening (and now closing again in response to the rise of COVID-19 clusters), young people are adrift from the unpredictability. They are losing a sense of predictability, however tenuous, through their school schedule, which provides a precious sliver of certainty in a time of overwhelming uncertainty.
The impact of “insecure attachments”
As humans we have evolved to detect unpredictability as a potential threat; we are primed to view those who deprive us of predictability, consistency, and stability as threatening. This is compounded when this unpredictability stems from a figure, relationship, or institution that is important and significant in our lives and that we have formed an “attachment” to such as a parent, or even an educational institution.
To better understand the deep impact of this we must turn to attachment theory, which explains the process by which children develop a relationship with and positive mental representation of themselves in relation to others.
While attachment theory is most often used to describe and explain infant-parent emotional bonding, it can be applied to secondary attachment figures and institutions such as teachers and schools because the brain remains plastic and continues to develop well into young adulthood. What we know is that the type of attachments young people have with significant figures—such as teachers and school administrators—in their lives impacts their psychological processes and colors their overall mental health. This attachment impacts their interpersonal functioning, emotion regulation, distress tolerance, and psychological resilience.
“For a young person, when an institution is inconsistent and unreliable, it can compromise the development of a secure and stable mental foundation.”
So when a young person senses that attachment figures or institutions in their lives are “secure” (reliable, dependable, predictable, and responsive), they are better able to withstand life’s highs and lows. But when those attachments are insecure, or inconsistent and unreliable, it can compromise the development of a secure and stable mental foundation. This can lead young people to overreact to minor stressors and to become emotionally guarded and avoidant.
In aggregate, insecure attachments can be a major contributor to a variety of mental disorders such as personality disorders, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), eating disorders, and schizophrenia, or give way to suicidal tendencies and substance use.
The result is that botched and inconsistent school reopening plans, while they may seem like a troublesome blip on a public official’s calendar, can have an impact that runs far deeper. The relationship a child has with their school is profound and powerful, impacting mental health and emotional stability. By threatening and undermining the security of that relationship and the attachment between a young person and their educational institution, we set the stage for a dynamic that could negatively impact a young person’s psychosocial functioning today—and into the future.
Our public officials can and must do better. It is imperative that they thoughtfully create plans that stick, so as to preserve the sanctity of this central and important relationship in the lives of young people. Our decisions and policies matter.
Dr. Amanda Fialk has a master’s and a doctoral degree in social work from Wurzweiler School of Social Work in New York City, and more than 15 years of experience working as a social worker specializing in adolescent and young adult mental health. In 2011, she joined The Dorm, a mental health treatment community committed to helping young adults launch independent lives. She is a member of the National Association of Social Workers and the New York Academy of Medicine and an adjunct professor at Wurzweiler.