The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the growing mental health crisis for too many young people. Even before the pandemic, depression, anxiety, and suicidality rates were sharply rising among teens in America. In 2019, rates of adolescents reporting a major depressive episode were up 60 percent from about ten years prior. Articles appear in the media on an almost daily basis that report the toll of social isolation and other pandemic-related stress on students. Whether they continue to grapple with the negative impacts of the pandemic on their lives, quarantines, and other disruptions to schooling, or the adjustment of back to “business as usual” but the changes can be challenging for many young adults. Given all this it was little surprise that the Surgeon General released an advisory at the end of 2021, warning the public of this mental health crisis among teens.
The mental health toll on young people is manifested in a gloomy list of conditions on the rise including anxiety, depression, self-harm, drug and alcohol abuse, suicidal ideation, and aggression. Waitlists for outpatient behavioral health therapists are long or closed off entirely to new clients. Even some of the less dire effects of COVID-19 can pose long-term challenges to young people and their families, like academic disaffection causing students to stop caring about schoolwork at a time when teachers are feeling more burnt out than ever before.
Mental health has always been one of the highest (if not the highest) areas of demand that we see in our grant applications at the Foundation, particularly in our Programs & Services portfolio. In a recent Programs & Services grant cycle, 18 of the 26 applications included a focus on mental health.
Several Tower grant partners have been providing direct support to youth and their families for whom COVID-19 brought on new mental health challenges or heightened existing ones. We’d like to share some of their work in this space.
CONNECTIONS – Northshore Education Consortium
As a counselor for the Connections Program at Northshore Education Consortium in Beverly, Massachusetts, Jen Orlando has provided one-on-one services to dozens of students from school districts in Essex County. At the outset, the focus of the program was on helping young people cope better with both the behavioral and academic challenges standing in the way of student success. But it was quickly clear, even before the upheaval of COVID-19, that families needed broader support to help their children succeed. These ranged from better nutrition and more stable housing to referrals for more intensive mental health interventions.
Jen began working with one family, a week before COVID-19 shut down the schools in March of 2020. At the time, parents felt disconnected and frustrated by their district’s inability to help them with their child’s behavioral issues, exhibited both at school and home. What followed was a six-month process of working with the family and school district to fully explore options. Jen coordinated a psycho-educational assessment that indicated that district classrooms were not the best option for this student. She assisted the family in applying for Department of Mental Health funding for an appropriate out-of-district, therapeutic placement. Eventually, both the district and family were on board with a therapeutic placement that offered fairly intensive support in both the classroom and the home. By the fall of 2020, the student’s new school was offering improved prospects for academic and emotional growth.
Jen Orlando’s support for another young woman and her family helped her navigate district academic demands and maladaptive behaviors at home. The student’s responses to past trauma resulted in aggression, self-harm, and a strained relationship with Mom. Jen worked with the family to help the mother and daughter manage their response to trauma, connect them with both in-home and out-patient therapists, and improve interpersonal communications. The mother/daughter dynamics improved, and the student made the honor roll the last two quarters of the year.
Other examples of program grants that have supported student mental health include:
- BRYT: Bridge for Resilient Youth in Transition, a program of the Brookline Center for Community Mental Health: BRYT is a unique program that focuses on students who have had extended mental health-related absences from school. The BRYT team works with school districts in Essex County and Barnstable County in Massachusetts (as well as across New England) to build out school-based supports that make the transition for students returning to school supported and successful.
- Buffalo Center for Arts and Technology (BCAT) is an after school program for high schoolers in Buffalo, New York, that focuses on building art and technology skills. The Tower Foundation supports the work of BCAT to supplement its programming with a therapeutic mental health professional. This mental health staff person has seen firsthand the impact of COVID-19 on high schoolers in their program and has been essential to supporting and staying connected with the students through it all.
- The NAN Project delivers mental health awareness and suicide prevention programs to young people, using a peer-to-peer model. The Tower Foundation is providing grant support to expand their programming to middle and high schools in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The program also offers professional development to school staff on mental health awareness and ways to overcome the stigma associated with mental health challenges.
 ‘It’s Life or Death’: The Mental Health Crisis Among U.S. Teens. NY Times, April, 2022.