Those last few months as a high school senior are normally filled with treasured rites of passage like prom, ditch day, and graduation. But for the Class of 2020, there was to be no pomp and circumstance—literally or figuratively.

The onset of the novel coronavirus pandemic in March necessitated swift and sudden school closures across the country, with the majority of students being dismissed for a Spring Break without end. Overnight, everything changed: They found themselves housebound, stripped of their freedoms, stranded from their social circles, and thrust into the unknown territory of virtual learning.

One by one, much-anticipated milestones were unceremoniously postponed. Then canceled. In some cases, replaced with remote alternatives that, while well-intentioned, hardly served as adequate substitutes.

And while grappling with all of these unwelcome changes, millions of college-bound kids have also been confronted with an even more unpredictable future: A freshman year that’s destined to look and feel unlike any other. Carefree parties, giddy orientations, and horizon-broadening classroom discussions will be supplanted by gradual phase-ins, social distancing, and experimental hybrid curriculums.

If it sounds like a recipe for turmoil and trouble, well, it is. So, what happens when this already vulnerable group gets hit with a relentless gauntlet of loss, disappointment, and uncertainty? It could set the stage for an unprecedented surge in depression and anxiety.

“The sense of isolation, the change in routines, the panic and confusion over what the future holds: It’s like the perfect storm,” says Josh Godinez, a school counselor at Centennial High School in Corona, CA, and president elect of the California Association of School Counselors.

According to Nefertiti Nowell, PhD, a clinical therapist and founder of Nowell and Associates in Naperville, Illinois, we should brace for major fallout in the months and even years to come. “We’re dealing with the Covid epidemic now, and my fear is that we’ll be dealing with a mental health epidemic next,” Nowell says. “As of March 16, these young people’s lives and dreams were basically stopped. We’re going to have a lot of depression, anxiety and impulsivity ahead.”

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Disappointment Leads To Depression 

For legions of high school seniors, the spring semester was just about to hit its stride before the advent of Covid-19.

Canceled Prom

At the top of the most-anticipated events list for Tyler Hernandez, 18, a student at Rancho Mirage High School in Palm Springs, CA? Prom. “Getting to ask that one girl if she wants to go with you, taking a bunch of pictures, having fun with your best friends,” he says wistfully. “It was supposed to be one hell of a night.”

Divya Navani, 18, had also geared up for an epic prom experience with her crew at Key West High School in FL. “I had already bought my dress and heels,” she says. “My friends and I knew exactly who we were going with and what we were going to do. I was super, super pumped, and had started counting down the days. To find out that something I’d been getting so excited about wasn’t going to happen was a really big bummer.”

Missed Downtime

Indeed. As the bad news and cancellations kept on coming, the divide between the teens’ expectations and the grim reality unfolding grew wider and more crushing. “It was supposed to be this period of celebration with your friends and family that you’ve worked so hard for,” says Lola Osborne, 19, of her final months at Germantown Friends, a private school in Philadelphia, PA. “I was ready to be laying out on the grass at lunchtime, enjoying that feeling of being carefree with college applications behind us.”

No Little Rewards

Having that payoff ripped from their grasp—right at the finish line—sent many students into an emotional tailspin. “I was definitely mad at first, and then sad, like, ‘What did I do to deserve this?’” says Audrey Blackburn, 18, who had been attending Maryville High School in TN. “All of these things I’d been looking forward to weren’t happening, and it wasn’t fair. I think I’m always going to wonder what it would’ve been like if I’d gotten a normal ending.”

Those ruminations are no garden-variety ennui, explains Emilie B. Joseph, PhD, a licensed psychologist and founder of the Empowered Insights therapy practice in Washington, D.C. “We can’t minimize the emotional impact of missed milestones,” she says. “Grief is a normal response to these losses and changes, and can be characterized by shock, denial, anger, and depression.”

Lack Of Closure

All of the students we spoke to expressed particular frustration and distress over the lack of closure to their high school careers. “Usually on the last day of school, we’d have an assembly where all the seniors wear tee-shirts from the colleges they’re going to next year and watch a slide show,” Blackburn says. “On my last day, I had a Spanish class on Zoom in the morning and then turned in one final assignment online. There were no goodbyes.”

Osborne has experienced similar pangs about how she spent her final day on campus—which, at the time, she had no idea would be her last. “I remember I was completely exhausted, and I was barely engaging,” she says. “I wish I’d known that I should be saying goodbye, because now even being able to hug someone is such a privilege. I’ve definitely replayed that day in my head a lot.”

Drive-By Graduations

And then, of course, there were the ad hoc graduation ceremonies. “We had a drive-by graduation at school with all of our teachers wearing masks. It was nothing like the real thing,” Hernandez says. “I’m the first one in my family to go to college, and now I’m gonna have to wait another four years for a chance to walk across that stage.”

Navani, too, has been mourning both the caps and gowns and what they represent. “Graduation is supposed to be this symbolic ending, and not having a normal one was hard. I wanted the feeling of closing that chapter,” she says.

Being robbed of the right to say a proper farewell is more than a sentimental loss. “Missing out on that tradition makes the students feel like they did all the work but without getting a meaningful reward,” Nowell says. “It can deflate their sense of importance and make them feel like they don’t matter.”

NEW HARDSHIPS, NEW HABITS

Along with the flurry of cancellations and letdowns, the quarantine ushered in a host of new behaviors and habits. Many teens (and adults) succumbed to poor sleep hygiene, dietary changes, and dramatically increased screen time. “I started staying up until 3 a.m., then sleeping in late and not eating until like 5 p.m.,” Osborne says. “I lost a good amount of weight. I’m just now starting to get back on track.”

Missing his usual sports practices and real-time connections, Hernandez turned to devices. “I hadn’t been into Netflix before, and that really got me,” he says. “I also started playing more video games late at night. I was thrown off my routine, and it didn’t feel comfortable.”

This absence of structure tends to have a profoundly destabilizing effect. “Significant disruptions of routine and schedule can contribute to anxiety and depression, helplessness and feeling a lack of control,” Joseph warns. “Stress management is made more difficult because the typical outlets are limited or unavailable, and social media and news can exacerbate the feelings of isolation and loneliness.”

Teens Have All The Feels

Granted, dealing with the pandemic has been taxing for people of all ages. But the experts agree that it’s especially hard for teenagers, given how they’re wired. “Developmentally, everything is heightened for a teen,” Nowell says. “On a good day, they can fly—on a bad day, they can’t get out of bed. So, to cope with these particular changes and losses is very intense.”

Surely they can intellectualize why it’s all playing out the way it is, though? Yes…and not so much. “Logically, they get it. But logic and emotion are very different,” Nowell says. “A lot of them are feeling punished, trapped and rebellious.”

Teens Really, Really Hate Isolation

A study conducted by a group of professors in the U.K. explored the impact of social distancing and school closures on the mental health of children and adolescents, finding that they’re likelier than their adult counterparts to experience high rates of depression and anxiety during and after enforced isolation—and, alarmingly, that the ramifications could last for up to nine years.

Teens Are Stressed

By the teens’ own accounts, they’re already feeling the mental toll. Osborne says that her struggles with anxiety, which predated the pandemic, worsened substantially in March and beyond. “I felt like I was reliving the same day over and over, and the things that usually made me happy weren’t making me happy anymore,” she says.

In May, she suffered a panic attack: “I was sitting in the car with my dad, and my heart started beating out of my chest and my throat got really tight.” (The episode prompted her to go on an anti-anxiety medication; she says it has offered relief.)

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Nowell has seen the red flags in her practice, as well. Among the signs: “Depression and anxiety are often characterized by apathy, lack of motivation, oversleeping, and sudden swings in appetite or mood,” Nowell says, noting that she’s also encountered patients who have begun engaging in self-harm.

Teens Could Become More Impulsive

If left unchecked, other possible repercussions could be substance abuse, an uptick in suicides and heightened impulsivity and recklessness. Cautions Nowell, “There can be a ‘you only live once’ mentality in this climate, because tomorrow isn’t promised—which may lead to risky behavior and testing limits just to feel adrenaline.”

FRESHMAN YEAR FEARS

Despite all the anguish and disappointment of their senior year, for the Class of 2020, the toughest days may be yet to come. While the pandemic has been a huge interruption to their status quo, it poses an even greater threat to their first year of college.

There’s Still A Lot Of Uncertainty

With the public safety mandates and recommendations constantly shifting—and the fresh waves of coronavirus sweeping throughout various parts of the country—many teens still don’t know what their freshman year will hold. (All virtual classes vs. limited groups, or a mixture of the two? Are roommates still a thing? Will sporting events be allowed? How many months will they spend at home versus on campus?) “With all the confusion and uncertainty, I’ve seen anxiety and stress peak in kids who would ordinarily be able to navigate this transition,” Godinez says.

In-Person Connections Will Be Limited

And after getting a taste of remote learning at the tail-end of high school, few relish the prospect of a second helping in college. “It’s a totally different experience being in a classroom versus on a computer,” Osborne says. “I’m an extrovert, so I feed off the energy of others, and it was really hard for me to stay motivated and accountable.” Navani concurs. “I could barely get through two months,” she says. “When I think of spending six months or more doing virtual school, it seems impossible.”

Or, at the very least, far from ideal. “These kids are already coming off an entire quarter of academic disengagement,” Godinez says. “College is a whole different beast, and now they might be going into that without the ability to connect, feel like they’re part of a community or get enough support. It could be very isolating.”

Social distancing will mean fewer opportunities to identify and address academic and emotional struggles. “There are less points of conversation and support over the course of the day that would potentially help students address their worries and concerns,” Joseph says.

Vulnerable Folks Won’t Get The Same Support and Resources

LGBTQ students and students of color will likely feel the impact on an even deeper level. Says Joseph, “I’m most concerned about our most vulnerable youth populations, and the way the pandemic cuts them off from much needed resources across different areas—financial, social, mental, emotional and physical.”

Freshman Are Still Thinking About Deferring College

The haziness over how colleges will proceed has led many students to question their plans. At press time, Osborne was still on the fence about whether to attend her chosen school, Chapman University in Orange, CA—thousands of miles away from home—given that a substantial amount of the curriculum has been moved online. But what’s the alternative? “I would do a gap year, but the thought of having to stay at home for a year is really stressful, too,” she says. “I’m trying to figure out what to do next.”

A survey conducted by SimpsonScarborough, a higher education research and marketing company, has projected that four-year colleges may lose up to 20 percent of their fall enrollment.

Navani, who has accepted a coveted spot at Harvard University, spent months awaiting news about which protocols the institution would implement. The verdict, much to her dismay: Classes will be virtual only. Nonetheless, she’ll be heading to Cambridge in the fall to live on campus, where she’ll submit to the school’s mandatory Covid-19 tests every three days.

“There are going to be a lot of restrictions, but I’m willing to put up with them because college is only four years and I want to know that I have peers around me,” she says.

Making New Friends Will Be Harder

The students opting to matriculate will face the usual freshman struggles, plus a host of other challenges. “First year students already tend to work through issues of belonging, homesickness, adjusting to new routines, creating structure, finding groups, and balancing their course load,” Joseph says. “The pandemic adds another layer of factors and makes it more difficult as they try to develop relationships, a sense of community and engage academically.”

The importance of the social piece—or lack thereof—cannot be overstated. If the students’ ability to be together is significantly curtailed, it will be a crippling blow. “Human touch is not something that can be recreated online,” Nowell says. “Spending time in person with others—touching, laughing, making eye contact—releases pheromones and lights up different parts of our brains. We need that human contact.”

Understandably, the incoming students’ concerns run the gamut. “I’m really nervous that we’re the guinea pigs,” says Blackburn of her upcoming year at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. “And if more stuff gets canceled, it’s going to make me angrier.”

Hernandez, for his part, will be heading off to Concordia University Ann Arbor in Michigan on a football scholarship. Currently, the school is planning to start having games in September, but that could change—and the prospect of not being able to take part in something that’s so integral to his identity is weighing on him. “I can’t wait to put on the helmet and shoulder pads again and create that bond you get playing with your brothers,” he says. “But football is all contact. Hopefully they don’t cancel our season—oh man, I would miss it.”

Students Are Worried About Getting Covid-19

Last but not least, there’s the pervasive fear of the actual virus itself. “My college has almost 25,000 undergrads. With such a big campus, the sickness could travel through the dorms at lightning speed,” Blackburn says. “I don’t want to bring anything home to my parents and grandparents, and that’s always going to be in the back of my mind.”

The Silver Lining For the Class Of 2020

As we’ve all discovered, this pandemic is a marathon, not a sprint—and the extended timeline presents an obstacle in and of itself. “When this first happened, young folks went into fight or flight mode, which makes the body release cortisol meant to help you in dangerous situations,” Nowell says. “But when released over the long term, cortisol changes our mood and can produce sadness and high levels of distress.”

The good news is that—with an abundance of awareness and support—depression and anxiety are not inevitable. “This generation is resilient, creative, and tech savvy,” Joseph says.

If they seek positive outlets (exercise, meditation, spending time in nature, art, gratitude journaling, social activism), they can foster emotional, physical, and psychological health, Joseph says.

The surfeit of pent-up energy and newfound grit could even be harnessed constructively. “Yes, I am hearing plenty of young people say, ‘What’s the point of it all?’” Nowell acknowledges. “But there’s also a large group saying, ‘Maybe we can be the ones to change the world.’”

It still remains to be seen whether the pandemic will end up being more destructive or unifying. Jean Blackburn, the mother of Audrey, suspects the ultra-specific nature of what this year’s high school graduates have experienced will prove to the be latter. “Years down the road, I think that anyone who was a member of the Class of 2020 is going to share this bond because of what they went through,” she says.

Until then, they have no choice but to keep confronting an invisible foe. Says Navani, “There’s that expression, ‘Hope for the best, prepare for the worst.’ But we don’t even know what to prepare for—or what to hope for.”

Last Updated: Aug 20, 2020