by Lisa Baniewicz
Special to The Leaven
Editor’s note: The names of the students and teacher interviewed for this story have been changed to protect their privacy.
ATCHISON – The American Psychological Association states: “There is no question: The COVID-19 pandemic has had a substantial impact on the lives of all Americans, and it will continue to do so. It has disrupted work, education, health care, the economy and relationships, with some groups more negatively impacted than others.”
New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says the mental health of citizens in the United States has taken a hit, too.
For teenagers, an age group that’s already emotionally vulnerable, this has only heightened mental health problems. It’s certainly the case for one area high school that has seen a dramatic increase in mental health issues since COVID began.
Whitney McGinnis, the academic and guidance counselor at Atchison’s Maur Hill-Mount Academy, holds a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees. She has been at the school for 10 years. Since COVID began, she has seen a large increase in mental health problems at the school.
“Prior to this year, it was mild anxiety and a little bit of depression,” said McGinnis. “Now, it’s massive anxiety, massive depression, suicide attempts and ideation.”
She believes one of the reasons for the increase is there are too many unknowns about the virus.
“Nobody knows what’s coming next and there is some PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) that everyone is experiencing since life shut down so fast last spring,” said McGinnis.
“Current seniors saw the class above them lose their prom and spring sports, and then their graduation was postponed,” she added.
McGinnis noticed the need to address the mental health of the student body early on. Last October, she introduced “Mental Health Mondays” at the school. The focus was to address mental health with students in a safe space for them to express their feelings.
The challenge for teachers was figuring out how to deal with students’ mental health issues while trying to balance teaching in-person and remotely.
Due to the massive increase in mental health issues and the need to guide the staff, McGinnis reached out to Stevie Durkin, a 2002 MH-MA alumnus who is the executive director of the Atchison Community Health Clinic.
First, Durkin, who is a licensed specialist clinical social worker (LSCSW) and licensed Master Addictions Counselor, came to MH-MA to meet with the teachers and evaluate their needs.
After the initial meeting with the faculty, Durkin went back to the school a few weeks later. This time, he brought his entire mental health staff from the clinic. They divided the faculty into small groups to discuss their individual experiences with their students.
“We wanted to make sure they know we are here to support them,” Durkin said. “Everyone working on the frontlines of this pandemic needs to support one another.”
Durkin emphasized the emotional stress of the pandemic is far-reaching.
“Even taking the age group out of it,” he said, “we’re seeing an increase in depression and anxiety. Ultimately, people are losing social contacts. There is increased isolation, and we’re dealing with a lot of uncertainty across the board with all of our patients.”
This is true for MH-MA sophomore Tina J., who suffers from anxiety, depression, suicide ideation and struggles with an eating disorder. She said COVID has only amplified her depression and anxiety.
“Isolation was really, really hard for me,” said Tina. I’m an extrovert and it helps me to be around people to avoid getting into a negative head space. Not being able to see other people — consistently being with yourself for long, long periods of time — isn’t helpful.”
Junior Jenny S. had never had an anxiety attack until the pandemic.
“I believe these attacks started with COVID,” she said, “because as the students started to quarantine, a lot of us felt like we got behind and that we couldn’t learn as well at home as we do in person.”
MH-MA administration noticed the struggle of quarantining was only adding to the stress and anxiety of the student body. After speaking with other Catholic high school administrators in the archdiocese, MH-MA administration canceled final exams right before Christmas break.
“There was an audible cheer throughout the school building that erupted with that news,” said MH-MA president Phil Baniewicz.
The students aren’t the only ones suffering from mental health issues. MH-MA teacher Mr. X can relate. He has suffered from anxiety attacks for the past five years.
“Obviously COVID doesn’t help,” he said. “If someone isn’t social distancing, I think, ‘Should I back up?’ Or if someone isn’t wearing a mask, I start to worry about those things.”
Add lesson planning in the midst of COVID and that only adds to the underlying stress.
“As a teacher, I have to have contingency plans,” he said. “Will we be remote tomorrow? Will I be quarantined? And, there seems to be no rhyme or reason to why people get COVID. That’s the other kind of worry. This doesn’t follow the rules of logic or rules we typically know.”
After the faculty rotated through each session with the Atchison Community Health Clinic staff, the day came to a close. McGinnis was hopeful.
“Stevie’s talk with them was reinforcing the good things [teachers] were doing in their classrooms already,” she said. “It helped them get an understanding of mental health and gave them tools moving forward.”
Junior Sally K. has already been helped by one of the faculty members.
“My teacher saw me start to have [a panic attack] and immediately she took me into an empty room so that it wasn’t in front of everybody and I could have some space,” said Sally. “She told me to take deep breaths and calmly told me that it’s OK to let it out. She was so nice and calm and I appreciated her being there so much. She made sure I felt comfortable and safe and didn’t make me feel ashamed. And I’m so grateful.”
McGinnis emphasized the best thing we can do is continue to educate ourselves and our teachers about mental health.
“Students need to be reassured that mental health is not taboo,” she said. “It’s not something to be ashamed of. It’s not something you have to hide.”
Durkin left his alma mater with a positive outlook for its future.
“A strong sense of community is what’s going to get MH-MA through this, just like everyone else,” he said. “And, you have that here at MH-MA.”
Durkin emphasized there are other mental health services available in Atchison, including the Guidance Center, Atchison Counseling Services and Hope Family Therapy. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is 1 (800) 273-8255.