Mental health: An open letter to locked-down teenagers

Tes’ mental health columnist writes to adolescents who may be struggling with their wellbeing in the coronavirus crisis

Tara Porter

Coronavirus: An open letter to the UK's lock-down teenagers

Hello, secondary school pupils,

I’ve been "Zooming" into your homes for more than two weeks to check on your mental health, post-lock-down, and been rapidly learning about coronavirus-adolescent-psychology. Needless to say, we didn’t cover this when I trained. 

So, let’s do the good news first: some of you are lots better than you were before. It seems that, for some of you, a global pandemic is better than taking your exams or being at school, and your mental health has improved. You are enjoying the pace of life being slower. I mean, you wouldn’t have chosen it or anything, obvs, you wouldn’t have wanted this, and you miss your friends, and stuff. But, on the other hand, when you were at school you used to really, really feel the pressure from your teachers, and worry about doing your best, and try so hard on your homework. You couldn’t ever relax or let go, or not take it seriously, and it’s a bit of a relief tbh that school is out, and you can do stuff you like, even if you are stuck with your parents or carers who want a routine, and think you should be “doing something useful”. 

Lots of you, though, you are feeling a lot worse. 

There are some of you who love sport, who are pent up and feel trapped. There isn’t even any sport to watch ffs. You don’t know what to do with yourself, you’ve got so much spare energy. You are fidgety and lost and you don’t sleep well because you haven’t exercised. Joe Wicks helps a lot, obvs. But overall you feel like that polar bear that you saw in a zoo once that had gone mad stuck in a small enclosure, and was pacing up and down, and climbing the walls.

Protecting mental health amid the coronavirus crisis

Others, before the pandemic, tried to keep the worries of life at bay by keeping everything very controlled and organised. Lots of you, who are a bit like that, aren’t doing that great either. You often are very clean, and like your bedroom, hair, clothes just so. Your hands are red raw with washing. You aren’t going out at all – not for your 20 minutes of fresh air. Who knows where the germs are or who has got it? You’ve learned you can’t be in control of everything, and all the routines and rituals don’t make a blind bit of difference when something like this hits.

Some of you, I expect, are coping with losing a loved one, a cherished granny or grandad, a mum or dad. It’s likely you are in shock, and it probably feels unreal, like a bad dream. You cry and cry until your eyes hurt and wake up in the night with a jolt, remembering again. You can’t believe this has happened to you. You might worry it’s your fault in some way, that that last time you saw them, perhaps you didn’t wash your hands long enough? (It’s not.) You might have moments you forget and feel happy about something or laugh at a joke, and then you remember and the horror of it comes crashing down. How could you ever laugh or smile? You feel grief-stricken and guilty again, but it’s normal to have periods of intense grief oscillate with lighter moments. Don’t feel bad.

There are some of you stuck with quite rubbish parents or in quite rubbish homes. You feel scared or upset or lonely. Sometimes all of these. You try to comply, and when it gets too much might do something crazy. Like break something. Or hit someone. Or run away. Or nick your parent’s alcohol. This isn’t great tbh. You shouldn’t be out on the streets, and ending up in A&E is not a great plan in retrospect. When is this going to end? 

And then there’s the third group: the ones of you who aren’t doing better or worse, but about the same. You are knuckling down, and getting on with it, and helping your parents if they are essential workers. You are getting used to everything being a bit worse than it was before. You are helping out with the chores more. Getting used to the food all being a bit more boring, and your parents banging on about not using too much loo roll and washing your hands. 

You are doing lots of slow things. Like cooking. Or art. Or music. speaking to Granny on the landline. You even picked up a book. Watched a movie all together as a family. Played a board game, I mean a board game. Interspersed with hours and hours of Houseparty,  Snapchat and Fortnite, obvs.

You are really peeved that you are going to miss Reading/prom/muck-up day, and so-and-so’s birthday and the camping trip down to Devon. But you know no-one else is doing anything, I mean, not just not your friends doing anything, the whole world is not doing anything. You have moments when it feels unfair on you, because of the particular Reading/prom/birthday combination that you are missing, and have five minutes feeling sorry for yourself, and have a little cry, but mostly, you know that it isn’t just “poor you” and that it's “poor everybody”, lots have it worse, and you are going to just get on with it. 

And when you come out the other end, you know, it will feel like the city of Oz: everything in technicolour. The freedom, the choice, the hugging. And you will look back at this time of life, when everything was worse, and know that you are stronger than you thought you were. You will have survived a scary, awful thing, and it will have made you into a better adult than you would have otherwise become. A little bit slower paced; a little bit more appreciative; a little bit more likely to be kind. And you will tell your grandkids about it, and they will yawn. Plus ça change

See you over Zoom soon,

Tara

Dr Tara Porter is a clinical psychologist in the NHS and private practice. She also works at the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families, and is Tes' mental health columnist. She tweets as @drtjap. The views expressed are her own 

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