COVID; Mental Health

Coping with COVID-19: Class of 2020 Edition

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Graduating from high school during the COVID-19 pandemic can be challenging for teens, and it's important to find additional and safe ways to celebrate their milestone.

COVID-19 has had a profound effect on all of our lives. Social distancing and safety measures have dramatically limited and changed how we work, play, communicate, and celebrate.

For students, particularly high school seniors, the sense of loss is magnified.

The global pandemic has robbed them of a defining moment in their lives and rites of passage they’ve been looking forward to for years: School trips, final sports seasons, proms, graduation day – just to name a few.

Their feelings of anger, anxiety, and sadness are justified, and it’s important that parents, friends, and loved ones don’t try to minimize or dismiss those emotions. Being forced to forfeit public celebrations of their hard work and accomplishments is no small price to pay.

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Kaylee Davis-Bordovsky

Kaylee Davis-Bordovsky, M.D., one of our residents in UT Southwestern’s combined Adult/Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Program, previously developed a curriculum titled “Project Mental Health Awareness” to help raise awareness about mental health topics in schools. She offers the following suggestions to help all high school students stay physically and mentally healthy during this trying time as well as tips for seniors to help them cope with their disappointment.

The resounding message is The Class of 2020 should be treated with grace and empathy.

Let them vent, commiserate with them, and try to understand their unique feelings of frustration. COVID-19 is an invisible force, with no tangible place to direct anger or resentment.

Most importantly, we all must find meaningful ways to recognize their achievements.

Many schools in Dallas-Fort Worth have delivered Class of 2020 yard signs. Some teachers have created personalized messages. The principal of Wylie High School, northwest of Dallas, traveled to each of his 621 graduating seniors’ homes to deliver a handwritten note, a candy bar, and to take a selfie. His mission of mercy covered 800 miles over a dozen days.

Other schools are planning virtual graduations or postponing them in hopes that they can still give seniors the thrill of walking across the stage in cap and gown to accept their diploma.

Certainly, nobody could have envisioned this for The Class of 2020 when the school year began, but COVID-19 cannot silence their creativity or lessen the achievements. Nothing can.

Celebrate your milestones

Meet your graduation speakers, Oprah, Lebron, and President Obama: Some of the world’s biggest celebrities have answered the call for the Class of 2020, and they will be hosting graduation ceremonies on social media and TV. On Friday, May 15, Oprah Winfrey will deliver the commencement speech for #Graduation2020, a global graduation celebration on Instagram and Facebook. The event will also feature performances and inspirational speeches from people like Olympic gold medalist Simone Biles. On May 16, NBA superstar Lebron James will host Graduate Together: America Honors the High School Class of 2020, which will air across major TV networks and YouTube and include a commencement speech by former President Barack Obama. These national salutes can’t replace local ceremonies – and many school districts are creating plans for virtual graduations – but the collective spirit should remind seniors just how many people are thinking of them and standing beside them during this difficult time.

Watch this: UT Southwestern Class of 2020 Virtual Medical School Graduation

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Virtual graduation ceremonies with commencement speeches from Oprah Winfrey and President Barack Obama will be available on TV and social media.

Zoom your prom: If you bought a prom dress but COVID-19 forced it to be canceled, dress up any way, take pictures, and organize a virtual prom with your friends. Some virtual meeting platforms like Zoom allow for 100 to 500 participants, depending on the plan you have.

Hang out for senior week: Don’t skip this important last hurrah. Celebrate the end of your high school journey and/or getting into college with friends with fun virtual activities. You can even change your backgrounds so it seems as if you’re hanging out at some of your favorite spots.

Take a graduation trip: Despite travel restrictions, plan a virtual graduation vacation. Some of the most magnificent museums or iconic landmarks in the U.S. and Europe offer immersive online tours. This is an easy way to learn about some amazing places in the world without leaving home. You can even take selfies!

Get a jump on higher education

Ramp up remote learning: You’ve probably done your share of online learning the last few months, and a lot of college courses are offered remotely. In college, you are in charge of your schedule and ultimately in charge of what you learn and don’t learn. Now may be a good time to practice. If you need more academic help, reach out to your teachers for support.

Take a campus tour: Most college campuses have closed during the pandemic, but many are offering virtual tours for prospective students that include 360-degree videos, tours narrated by students or famous alumni, and walk-throughs of dorms and classrooms. This can’t replace that all-important college trip, but the convenience of online tours can’t help you get a first look or help you get acclimated to campus.

Learn new (life) skills

Stimulate your mind: It’s easy to get bored in the era of physical distancing. Use this time to learn something new, such as painting, crocheting, or playing guitar. Now is the time to start exploring different skills. Who knows, you may just be the next Picasso or Jimmy Hendrix!

Lean on your family: Parents, grandparents, or older siblings are a great source of knowledge. They may not remember trigonometry, but they can help you learn some life skills such as money management, how to change a tire, or how to cook that famous family secret recipe, all of which may come in handy when you’re away at college or living on your own.

YAM program tackles issue of teen depression in schools

UT Southwestern's Youth Aware of Mental Health (YAM) program helps adolescents cope with mood and anxiety issues and recognize patterns teen depression in school. The program has been implemented in some of Texas’ largest school districts.

Related Reading: UT Southwestern’s Youth Awareness Program Helps in Texas Schools

Stay in good physical shape

Get plenty of sleep: A good night’s sleep is important for your body to stay healthy, and it will improve your mood and productivity. Teenagers need 8-10 hours a night, according to the National Sleep Foundation. If possible, get at least nine and to stick to regular sleep schedule (even if that means getting up earlier than you’d like).

Maintain good nutrition habits: Try to eat three healthy meals a day and to avoid salty, fatty, and fried foods. This is easier said than done, of course, but make the effort. Apple slices, nuts, yogurt, or even popcorn are great snack options between meals. And try not to eat too late at night; it can disrupt your sleep patterns.

Keep exercising: Staying home doesn’t have to mean spending the entire day on your phone or playing video games. If you want to go on a walk, run, or bike ride outside, it is safe as long as you keep at least 6-feet of space between you and anyone else. You can also shoot some baskets if you’ve got a hoop at home, play games in the yard, or try exercise videos online (yoga, dance, cardio).

Maintain your mental health

Do NOT worry alone: It is a normal reaction to be scared during this time. The important thing is to talk to someone about it, whether it be a parent, sibling, friend, or teacher. Even though everyone is talking about “social distancing,” that really refers to physical distances. We may need to be physically isolated, but you shouldn’t socially isolate. It remains imperative for your mental health that you stay connected with friends and family members. Try a Zoom/Skype meeting with your friends or try an online group game. Just don’t lose touch.

Take a break from the news: While the news and social media can provide valuable information, watching or listening to COVID-19 news repeatedly can be scary and increase anxiety levels for some teens. If you’re feeling nervous or upset after watching the news, talk to a parent about what you watched. It’s also important to take a break and watch something on TV or social media that brings you joy. Find a new favorite show or escape with some fun videos of puppies or even a sloths!

A few final thoughts

We are living in a historic time. And while that may not provide much comfort to the Class of 2020 when you consider all that you are missing during this global pandemic, but history has taught us many important lessons. In fact, you’ve probably studied many of them throughout your high school careers.

The past teaches us that just about every successful person or project had to overcome some form of adversity. Your generation of students – the post-Millenials – is on track to become the best-educated and most diverse group in history, according to a recent study by The Pew Research Center.

To the Class of 2020, you have already shown the resilience and determination it takes to navigate and succeed in high school. The sky is the limit. We all salute you!

Opening the door to mental health services in college

Jessica Moore, M.D., serves as Medical Director of Student Wellness and Counseling at Paul Quinn College, a school in South Dallas that attracts young adults from across the country. The school has pioneered a partnership with UT Southwestern to open doors to mental health services for its students.

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