‘We missed out on a lot’: Pittsburgh-area teens are still struggling 3 years after COVID-19 hit

Pictured: Paige Cholewinski speaks with Canon-McMillan High School senior Laurel Williams, 18, while she relaxes in the Chill Room on Thursday, March 23rd. Photo Credit: Lucy Schaly of the Post-Gazette.
Posted On: Monday, March 27, 2023

Pictured: Paige Cholewinski speaks with Canon-McMillan High School senior Laurel Williams, 18, while she relaxes in the Chill Room on Thursday, March 23rd. Photo Credit: Lucy Schaly of the Post-Gazette.  (This article was written and released by ANYA SOSTEK of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The original article can be found by clicking here.)

Only now are some of these students getting back to what they thought their high school experience would look like.

Walking the halls of Canon-McMillan High School, it’s not obvious that the COVID-19 pandemic ever hit the Canonsburg district. 

Masks are few and far between, social distancing is gone, and in-person activities are in full swing. But look a little closer and the signs are there: circles marking the distance to keep six feet apart are still faintly imprinted on the lunch room floor.

Three years ago this month, then-Gov. Tom Wolf announced schools would shut statewide in Pennsylvania. Ask a high school student and there’s a good chance they have the exact date memorized: March 13th — a Friday the 13th, to be specific. Only now are some of these students getting back to what they thought their high school experience would look like.

Next month, Canon-McMillan senior Laurel Williams will finally go on her first overnight band trip when the Big Mac Band travels to Gatlinberg, Tenn. When she comes back, she’ll be just weeks away from graduation.

“This is our first normal year and we’re seniors,” said Ms. Williams, 18, of North Strabane. “The little things that were big to us, we missed out on a lot of that.”

Image Description(Paige Cholewinski writes affirmations on sticky notes to hang on the wall in the Chill Room at Canon-McMillan High School on Thursday, March 23, 2023.(Lucy Schaly/Post-Gazette)

For high school students, much of the last three years have been spent constantly adapting — first to virtual learning and isolation, then to masks and social distancing, and finally to a re-entry into a traditional school day. And while they may now seem like typical teenagers on the outside, on the inside many are still adapting.

“Things have started to go back to normal, closer than what they used to be, but you can still feel the lasting effects,” said Katie Haas, a junior at Fox Chapel Area High School. “It’s hard to move on from something that severe.”

For many, the experience brought increased struggles with — and awareness of — mental health.

Last year, Katie, 17, of O’Hara, helped start a Fox Chapel high school chapter of Stand Together, an organization that seeks to promote dialogue and reduce the stigma about mental health. The group’s efforts include the creation of a banner at school, passing out information about mental health resources and connecting students to therapists.

Abigail Schlesinger, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at UPMC Western Psychiatric and Children’s Hospital, has seen an increase in teens seeking treatment for mental health issues since the pandemic.

“We’re still seeing teens who are picking up the pieces,” she said. “They are forever changed.”

Image DescriptionClick for larger image

A report updated this month from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control found that persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness among teens were at their highest levels since the CDC began tracking that information in 2011.

For teen girls in particular, persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness jumped after the COVID pandemic — from 36% in 2011 to 46% in 2019, and to a high of 57% in 2021. The percentage of high school girls who seriously considered suicide jumped as well, from 19% in 2011, to 24% in 2019 and to 30% in 2021.

While the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t necessarily directly cause mental health issues in teenagers, “Those who may have struggled even without COVID often are having more struggles now,” said Dr. Schlesinger.

School shutdowns disrupted sleep patterns, removed students from “non-formal support” figures like teachers and coaches, and pushed students onto phones as their only connection to friends and social circles, she said.

Interacting with the world through a phone — with no in-person contact as a reality check — often presents a distorted impression, which can amplify feelings of depression or anxiety.

Image DescriptionCanon-McMillan High School senior Laurel Williams, 18, relaxes in an individual pod in the Chill Room, a calm space in the school, as well as a resource for counseling, medication management, support groups and mindful exercises.(Lucy Schaly/Post-Gazette)

Laila Golla, now a 14-year-old freshman at Fox Chapel, was a sixth-grader in her first year at the Ellis School in Pittsburgh’s Shadyside neighborhood when the pandemic hit in 2020.

Because she was new to the school anyway, getting pushed online due to COVID restrictions limited a lot of the incidental, real-life contact that might have helped in the process of connecting with new friends. Instead, she only saw what they were posting online.

“I think if I had that personal interaction, I wouldn’t have that doubt of, ‘Am I doing something wrong because my life isn’t that great?’ ” she said. “All you see is the reality through social media.”

Laila, who is also a leader of Stand Together at Fox Chapel, became involved in the organization partly because of the toll that she thinks the pandemic took on her confidence and mental health.

When school shut down in 2020, Ms. Williams at Canon-McMillan was a freshman — eight days away from a trip to Disney World for which the marching band had been rehearsing for eight months. She spent most of her sophomore school year doing virtual school, in part to protect the health of her father, who has an autoimmune disorder.

She was able to participate in the school musical by wearing special clear masks and rehearsing six feet apart, and to play her clarinet in the marching band, though for a while she had to put her clarinet and her hands inside a big blue bag to reduce the release of germs into the air as she played.

She spent a lot of time rearranging her bedroom, adjusting how her set-up would look in virtual school, and she noticed herself becoming more anxious; at one point she entered therapy.

“As you are more isolated, you tend to think about things more — you see on social media people’s parents getting sick and wonder if that could happen to me and my family,” she said. “There was a lot of that time in isolation where you could let your mind wander in a bad direction.”

In the time that their school career was disrupted because of COVID, some students missed out on developing coping skills to deal with problems that come up in the course of a school day, said Paige Cholewinski, who runs the AHN Chill Project at Canon-McMillan, which opened this school year.

AHN started the Chill Project in 2019 and it is now in 31 schools in Western Pennsylvania. Each school has a dedicated Chill Room where students can go when they need mental health support during the day. The project also provides access to therapists and mindfulness activities.

Image DescriptionRules for the Chill Room, including speaking in a quiet voice, not using cell phones and respecting others, hang on the wall at Canon-McMillan High School on Thursday, March 23, 2023.(Lucy Schaly/Post-Gazette)

At Canon-McMillan, the Chill Room has cozy couches and an ivy wall with a cursive “Chill” in lights. Students come in stressed and overwhelmed, said Ms. Cholewinski, anxious about issues at home, school or social dynamics. She has them begin with deep breathing to try to induce calm, and then focuses them on being able to rationally think about what can get them through the rest of the school day.

“COVID definitely impacted some students’ coping skills,” said Ms. Cholewinski, who has a social work background, recounting the experience of a fifth grader at a previous school where she worked who forgot his water bottle at home and had difficulty continuing his school day drinking water from a paper cup. “You have to think, ‘If COVID didn’t happen, would we still be having the same reaction?’”

In addition to programs like the Chill Project, schools are eager to bring in more resources to help students improve their mental health.

Alisa and Todd Whysong, of O’Hara, started the Positive Painting Project after the suicide of their daughter, Katie, in March 2021, when she was a freshman at Fox Chapel High School.

Katie was diagnosed with major depressive disorder when she was in seventh grade and improved dramatically after treatment from the STAR Center at UPMC Western Psych.

Then, at the end of eighth grade, COVID hit.

Image DescriptionPaige Cholewinski, left, speaks with Canon-McMillan High School senior Laurel Williams, 18, in the Chill Room, on Thursday, March 23, 2023. The Chill Room is a calm space in the school and a resource for counseling, medication management, support groups and mindful exercises.(Lucy Schaly/Post-Gazette)

“COVID affected the mental health of a lot of people and Katie was no exception,” said Mr. Whysong. “We were addressing it the best we could — but not being able to go see a doctor, not being able to go see a therapist, not being able to see your teachers … we in some ways consider her a COVID casualty.”

In eighth grade at Dorseyville Middle School, Katie had once consoled a friend in the bathroom when the friend was having a low moment. An avid artist, she had an idea at the time of painting murals in the middle school bathroom with affirmative messages for those who were struggling.

After her death, her family and middle school art teachers, Nanci Goldberg and Mackenzie Seymour decided to make it happen. Ms. Seymour designed various templates with messages such as “You Matter” and “No Feeling is Final'' that could be screen printed onto canvases and painted by volunteers.

They designed the project for the middle school but sent extra canvases to Fox Chapel Area High School. As word of the project spread, requests started to pour in from other school districts and community groups who thought their students could benefit.

Image DescriptionThe founding members of The Positive Painting Project, from Left to Right: Mackenzie Seymour, Alisa Whysong (holding Mackenzie’s daughter, Chloe), Todd Whysong, and Nanci Goldberg.(The Positive Painting Project)

At this point, 22 schools in 17 different Pennsylvania districts have done the Positive Painting Project, with at least four or five more planning to participate soon.

“We don’t reach out to schools but we haven’t had to,” said Mr. Whysong. “Schools and communities, they know it’s an issue and they want to help. We’re hearing from guidance counselors — a lot of guidance counselors — and school psychologists saying hey, this is something that’s needed.”

Katie Haas, the junior at Fox Chapel, was a close friend of Katie Whysong and started Stand Together, the mental health group there, in response to her death.

“A lot of students in the school were like, this is enough, we just lost a classmate and a friend — we need to help other people who might be struggling to make sure that nothing else like this could ever happen again,” she said. “I hope we are making a difference.”

If you or a loved one are experiencing thoughts of suicide, call the toll-free National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. Other hotlines for specific trauma areas, including sexual assault substance abuse and veterans trauma, can be found at apa.org/topics/crisis-hotlines.

Anya Sostek: asostek@post-gazette.com 

First Published March 26, 2023, 5:30am

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