Across the country, and in local communities, young people are suffering from a mental health crisis. Stresses connected to the pandemic—lockdowns and remote learning—along with the psychological distress related to racism have combined to create unprecedented rates of anxiety and depression among our youth.

In the fall of 2018, the MGH Youth Programs team partnered with Katia Canenguez, PhD EdM, Pediatric Behavioral Psychologist, Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mass General for Children, and Jonathan Jenkins, PsyD, Clinical Psychologist, Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Sports Psychiatry, to provide a safe space for our students to talk about mental health issues and effective coping strategies.

In this Q&A, Dr. Canenguez discusses her work with our students and her recommendations for concerned parents.

CCHI: Tell us about your work with the MGH Youth Scholars.

DR. CANENGUEZ: I facilitate workshops, along with Dr. Jonathan Jenkins and other colleagues, throughout the year. Some workshops have been in person and others virtual. Topics have included:

  • Racial identity and racial justice 
  • Stress and mental health 
  • Mental health and stigma
  • Self-care 

And these are just a few of the topics we addressed.

CCHI: What were you hearing from the Youth Scholars about the stressors they were feeling during COVID? How were they impacted by these stresses? 

DR. CANENGUEZ: Youth have shared that they have been experiencing heightened levels of school-related stress. Learning through an online platform has been challenging for some. In addition, the transition back to the classroom was difficult. During COVID, sleep patterns were disrupted, which led to youth feeling tired and unmotivated throughout the day. Some reported feeling isolated because they could not spend time with friends and many worried about the health and well-being of their family members.

Youth also reported feeling anxious about their family members contracting COVID. Some shared that they worried about the future in general. In addition, our young people have shared a bit about their experiences dealing with issues of racism. All these stressors had impacted their mood, including higher reports of symptoms of anxiety and depression.

CCHI: Is this similar to what you were hearing generally in your practice? Was there anything unique, or that stood out to you, about our students’ experiences? 

DR. CANENGUEZ: This is similar to what I have been hearing in my practice. I provide care to many Spanish-speaking patients from immigrant families who shared the same stressors. I would add that youth worried about their family members given that many had parents who were frontline workers. Additional stressors that some of my patients shared were related to housing and food insecurity. And along with that, it was challenging to find a therapist for young people who were interested in engaging in therapy.

CCHI: What advice, tools, or techniques did you give the students for dealing with mental health issues? 

DR. CANENGUEZ: We talked about ways of coping with stress. For example:

  • Getting a good night’s sleep
  • Engaging in fun family activities
  • Taking breaks from Zoom and taking leisurely walks
  • Eating foods that give your body energy.
  • Seeking mental health support when needed

We also talked about the importance of asking for help. I emphasized that asking for help is a strength.

CCHI: Is there any advice that you would give to the parents/families/guardians of young people dealing with mental health issues? 

DR. CANENGUEZ: Yes, the past three years have certainly been challenging and unprecedented. Youth have had several losses and difficult transitions during this time and supports are important. If you notice changes in your child’s mood, invite them to tell you a bit about what is going on. Let them know you will listen. You can even say you will listen to them for the next ten minutes and you will not interrupt them. It’s usually helpful to find a time where you can take a walk together or have a meal together and use this time to check-in. Remind your child that you are there for them and that you will listen to and support them.

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