In Their Own Words: Local Students Share What Pandemic Has Been Like

Lily Berchin

The pandemic has been hard on everyone, but it has been a particularly jarring experience for teenagers and adolescents.

Over the last 20 months, teens have missed out on major life milestones, experienced the cancellation of extracurriculars they love, have been forced to do a significant amount of their schooling online, and have experienced unprecedented levels of social isolation, anxiety, depression and other mental health issues. Just last month, the American Academy of Pediatrics declared a “mental health state of emergency” for teens.

While there has been much talk among health professionals, educators, and other adults who work with children about the challenges youngsters are facing and how to help them, the voices of the teens themselves are often lost in the shuffle.

The Express News Group asked several teenagers in our coverage area to share their thoughts about the pandemic, how it has affected their lives, what have been the most challenging elements for them, what silver linings, if any, have they taken away from the experience, and what they think adults need to do going forward to help them safeguard their mental and emotional well-being.

Some of their responses have been condensed, but this is what they shared, in their own words:

Elijah Amos

Elijah Amos, junior, Hampton Bays High School: president of 11th grade student council, member of the indoor and outdoor varsity track and field teams

For me, the most challenging part of the pandemic was staying focused in class. For most of 10th grade, I was in my room doing schoolwork. I did try to switch it up and wander into my kitchen or basement, but I often found myself easily distracted. It was especially difficult during the winter, when I couldn’t go on walks during my breaks.

During the first few months of remote school, I actually felt pretty happy. I was home, I did not have to get up at 6 a.m., I could go on walks and I wasn’t too stressed. But it was when the winter started rolling around that I noticed a change. I was antsy, bored and, most importantly, stressed beyond belief. All these factors made me an incredibly irritable person; I didn’t even want to be around myself anymore.

The thing I missed most was not being able to spend time with friends. I remember I saw my friends so infrequently that whenever I did see them, I would always send them off with a “See you in another three months.”

After a while, the lack of physical interaction with my friends started to weigh down on me, and I started to feel pretty reclusive.

It was not only my friends that I seldom saw but other people as a whole. This stripped me of vital human communication that I wanted but couldn’t achieve.

I definitely started to feel a lot of anxiety. I started getting these awful headaches from the screen. I was always upset and irritable, just not a very fun person to be around.

I tried taking up meditation. It worked for a good bit, especially during the winter months.

The most important people I can think of would be my mom, for being so patient, and my science research teacher, for being that shining light, especially when everything was so dark.

One teacher I had encouraged us to take breaks and meditate. Every Monday, we had a mental health Google Meet to discuss what we could do about our group mental health.

I got a lot closer with my mom during the pandemic. During the early months, we used to go on walks and talk with each other. These walks taught me the importance of taking breaks, and that they are a cornerstone of taking care of oneself. It’s a lesson that I am pretty inconsistent with, but it is one that I try to follow.

A big challenge that I am still facing is my lack of energy for certain activities. I still find doing schoolwork to be a great challenge, and even exercise is hard for me. This is a problem I see in a lot of my peers: a lack of motivation and energy to go through another day.

Among my peers, there seems to be an unprecedented rise in depression, anxiety and other mental ailments. When it comes to older generations addressing mental health, there seems to be a sort of stigma around it. Maybe it could be that the time they were raised gave them different ideals, or different ways that each generation grew up affects views.

One thing is for sure, and that is that most parents, teachers, and community leaders do not understand, or respect, our struggles as a generation. Many are unwilling and unwavering in their resolve to not listen.

I think education is a great way to combat this. Education can help to remove the stigma around mental health, especially in seeking help for it. Educating the children will be beneficial, but educating parents, teachers and the like will be even greater for community health.

Whether different groups [minorities, LGBTQ+ students] are suffering differently is hard to say. As a Black person, I do not feel as if my suffering is any different from some of my peers. It is a matter of perspective at the same time, and what I could be going through should, and will be, vastly different from the next person.

Maizie Poulakis

Maizie Poulakis, junior, Hampton Bays High School: member of the cheerleading squad and pole vaulter on track and field team

When we went into remote learning, it was a new experience for everyone, teachers and students. We all had to learn on the fly. Because we had no idea how long we were going to be in quarantine, I lost motivation, and all my grades started slipping.

The pandemic was really hard. I’m a social person, and I felt cut off from the world, and my mental health started to completely slip. I felt like I was always in a slump and spent a lot of my time crying or sleeping. I felt so undetermined and stuck.

I felt like I lost everyone in my life during the quarantine. I felt alone, even though I spent time talking to them almost every day. I feel like this was a main cause of why my mental health just plummeted during the height of the pandemic.

Losing in-person social interaction really sucked, because I’m a really social person and I loved being able to see my friends and spending time together, and having that taken away was really hard for me.

Because I had nothing to do, a lot of the times I would stay up until 6 or 7 a.m. and sleep until 4 p.m., and this became a really bad habit that kept up almost throughout the whole lockdown.

A way I tried to help myself cope with feeling unmotivated was doing art. I spent a lot of my time painting and drawing. My dad loves art, so he provided me with a canvas he had downstairs, and my amazing art teacher Mrs. Bishop would drop off paint for me (in a safe way, of course). I also tried to FaceTime and talk to my friends as much as I could for at least some kind of social interaction.

Teachers tried to make the quarantine easier for us. They assigned less work and reached out, but the work they did assign was hard, and sometimes it was really hard to reach out. But they were trying their best, just like we were as students.

I really wish that I had more access to baking goods! I started baking a lot in the lockdown to kill time, but sometimes it was hard to get what I needed from the grocery stores because things were selling out fast.

Even though the quarantine was extremely hard, I don’t know who I’d be as a person without it. The pandemic changed me, and I believe it changed a lot of people. I learned how to keep my own company and really learned who I was mentally and physically.

Even though we are out of quarantine, the pandemic is still ongoing, so in school we still can’t do what we fully would pre-COVID — like in science class, we can do our labs, because we still have to be 3 feet away from each other, and in cheerleading, we have to keep a mask on, making it hard to breathe sometimes. Concerts and other venue events really aren’t going on, and if they are, you need a vaccine card. Our world isn’t back to full normal, but we are getting there.

I feel as if adults really aren’t aware of mental health issues, as it wasn’t really talked about when they were our age. They don’t realize that mental health is a big issue and has increasingly gotten worse. I do believe that mental health issues are large in my generation, and I believe that more needs to be done and talked about in schools and other places, because people need to be informed on mental health.

I also believe that certain groups of kids are suffering from mental health in different ways either from how they are treated or how that group has been treated in the past.

Lily Berchin

Lily Berchin, junior, Westhampton Beach: three-sport athlete — soccer, basketball, lacrosse

During the pandemic, the most challenging thing for me about remote learning would be not having a teacher with me to ask direct questions. Emailing was easy, but not being able to just ask a quick question was definitely something I had to prepare myself to be ready for. Also, not seeing my friends every day definitely impacted me. Hanging with my friends and seeing them every day has been a normal occurrence since kindergarten.

Some losses I felt through this pandemic would definitely be losing three full sports seasons. Yes, we were given them, but they were shortened by many weeks, and we were playing in masks, making it just not feel the same. As a junior, my friends and I also didn’t receive a junior prom through the school. All the traditional memories are definitely different.

My teachers and administrators were really good to the Westhampton Beach students. For most, going fully remote was definitely hard, but they pushed through and did as much as they could to teach us. Any questions students had would be answered, extra help via Zoom was an option, and emailing, of course. They tried their best in a difficult situation — I couldn’t judge them in times like this.

To cope with challenges I was facing during the pandemic, I worked out and focused on myself. Being that I was home when normally I would be playing a sport, I felt sad but eventually became motivated. My parents kept me motivated to get outside and work out or have a sports catch.

I think what most parents/adults fail to understand is that life for teenage kids isn’t just “you’re always on your phone” or “you’re being lazy and just laying in your bed.” School is hard. Sports are hard. Friendships can be hard, too. Balancing these all at once is even harder.

Kids today who claim they have anxiety or depression mostly get told that they are lying or just being dramatic. These kids need recognition and support through tough times like this.