When it comes to mental health, what are teenagers these days worried about? To find out, I spoke to three high-schoolers who are also Jewish Teen Initiative Peer Wellness Fellows: Carly LaKind from Swampscott, Hailey Oberlander from Marblehead and Benjy Wolf-Wagner from Framingham.
Fellows work to remove the stigmas surrounding mental health and wellness, educating themselves and their peers through group learning and programmatic opportunities. JTI partners with BaMidbar Wilderness Therapy, The Blue Dove Foundation and other local and national partners to provide high-level training in awareness, advocacy, relational engagement and leadership development.
LaKind, Oberlander and Wolf-Wagner are each grappling with ordinary teenage stuff—homework, college admissions—while also grappling with larger issues of antisemitism and COVID-19.
What are teenagers grappling with in terms of mental health right now? Obviously the pandemic is huge. I’m sure there are other things that are on your mind as well.
Hailey Oberlander: I’m not sure if people know what’s going on in Marblehead, but we just faced a really tragic [car accident]. Right now, I think many people are in a very negative and sad headspace. Definitely with COVID, stress and anxiety has increased a huge amount. I think more kids are worried about their future, with college and the fear of the unknown. Also, I think a lot of kids have been in a negative headspace due to COVID; even just talking with my friends and people at school, I’ve noticed that the rates of people who, at least in Marblehead, have had suicidal thoughts and depression, and kids who have been diagnosed with mental health issues, have increased significantly over the course of the pandemic.
Could you share what happened in Marblehead?
Oberlander: On Friday, a senior in high school, James Galante, who was committed to Denison University to play football, got in a car accident, and he died. This tragedy has brought all of Marblehead together, and even the surrounding towns. It’s been really sad for the senior class and for all of Marblehead. He was considered a hometown hero. It’s a really sad, tragic event that has taken over Marblehead.
Carly LaKind: At least for me and my friends, our anxiety has been super-high going from completely all-remote last year to completely in-person; it was definitely a hard shift. We started in-person freshman year, where you’re just kind of starting high school, you’re getting used to it, you’re understanding the workload. Then sophomore year came, and we were online, so we weren’t getting as much work. I feel like teachers were more laid-back with grades. It was more pass/fail. And then coming into junior year, which is probably one of the hardest years of high school, coming back completely in-person has thrown us for a loop because we’re all getting used to the workload again. We’re all getting used to being in classrooms. And especially with junior year, you’re working on your GPA and keeping your grades up. I feel like coming back in-person super quick, anxiety has been super-high about our future and college in general. I feel like we missed a year of learning and everything.
Benjy Wolf-Wagner: I’m a senior, and this whole school year has basically been focused on college. All the kids I know are trying to figure out what they want to do and how to balance school, sports and all the college applications. Decisions are rolling out, and some of them are right around the corner. It was a really hard admission cycle last year for the class of 2021. But this year, admissions rates all over the country are really dropping. A lot of the people I know are having some really tough luck with acceptances as time is ticking down. I can start to feel the heat. I’m not really sure where I’m even going to be in a year. The stress is really hard to balance; at the same time, teachers this year have not been very kind or understanding about anything that has been going on. You would think they lived through the same pandemic that we did, but they’re still being super unforgiving with assignments.
Oberlander: I just want to agree with Benjy on the teachers part. I have a few teachers who are very nice about assignments, whether being sick or stressed out, but then I have some teachers who pretend like the pandemic never happened. They pretend this is a normal year, even though it’s not. We have all been out of school for so long. I almost forgot how to be a student, which has been really hard with teachers who are so unforgiving.
Have you noticed more kids seeking out help for mental health or struggling with getting access to mental health care?
LaKind: I feel like definitely more people are coming out and asking for help, but at the same time, being a little more scared to. In quarantine, we had a lot of time to ourselves. A lot of people had time to think and were stuck in their thoughts. We have school guidance counselors, and the rate of people going to these counselors and seeking help has gone up tremendously. I’ve recommended some of my friends to these people. I myself go to therapy, and I’ve recommended some of my friends for therapy. Having a friend to talk to is amazing, but you can’t do nearly as much as someone who is a licensed professional.
Are there issues in terms of being Jewish that you worry about or that might affect Jewish kids’ mental health more than others, like antisemitism? How does that affect you and your peers?
Oberlander: I’m very proud of being Jewish. I’m very involved [in the Jewish community]. And I never hide the fact I’m Jewish. But in school, I do. There are some neo-Nazis in my school, which is very scary to think about. If I’m wearing a sweatshirt that says “Jewish Teen Initiative,” I’m going to be targeted. A lot of the Marblehead schools have had incidents of antisemitism. That is a very scary fact for me, the fact that it’s happening in my hometown where I’ve always felt so safe. And now I feel less safe.
Wolf-Wagner: I live in Framingham. There’s a pretty good Jewish population in Framingham. Every now and then, there are swastikas drawn on the bathroom walls. During the pandemic, it seemed like there was an increase in synagogue vandalism and people drawing swastikas on the buildings. I do feel like I’m very lucky to be in a place that has a lot of Jewish kids, because I know in [other places] it’s not always like that.
LaKind: I live in Swampscott, which is the town over from Marblehead. We don’t have a very big Jewish population either. I’m the same as Hailey: I don’t necessarily avoid showing that I’m Jewish; I wear a necklace everyday with a hamza on it, but I wouldn’t necessarily wear my Jewish Teen Initiative stuff to school because some people are super insensitive. I’ve had people make many, many Jewish jokes that they find funny but that I definitely don’t. That’s a little scary because I’m in my school, in my hometown, where I should feel safe. But sometimes that’s not the case.
Oberlander: I’ve had friends make antisemitic jokes to me. I know sometimes they don’t mean it, but it’s like, “Well, you said it.” So now I have to think: Do I still want to be friends with you? Or can I go about our friendship in the same way? It’s taxing.
Is there anything you want to tell people reading this that they might not understand about teenagers and mental health?
Wolf-Wagner: I would want people to know, especially with the pandemic, that [teens] are trying their best. People might not be as on top of their game as they were before the pandemic. Everyone’s still trying their best to get everything done and stay on top of what everyone is expecting of them. But sometimes it does get to be a huge burden, a bigger burden than it feels like it ever has been.
LaKind: Give us time and space to learn and overcome the challenges that we’ve been [facing]. In high school, you learn a lot. Just give us time to figure out what we missed; we missed a whole year. Even if we are a little behind, we’re going to get over the challenges. We’re going to figure it out. I just think it might take teenagers some extra time.
It seems like school is the most pressing concern right now.
Oberlander: Since it’s my junior year, school has been very taxing, especially on my mental health. I come home from school with hours and hours of homework. It makes my anxiety 10 times worse because I’m worried about not getting things done. Marblehead is so competitive, and nobody wants to fail, which is also a bad thing. If you have a B on your report card, everyone fears they’re not going to get into college. It’s just a lot. I also think that some teachers and guidance counselors are great, but they don’t do enough to relieve our stress. We know they’re there for us, but they don’t make it known. I feel like kids in general think they’re alone.