Pandemic highlights the need for better mental health education

As isolation continues, many of us have been reflecting on what we would consider our last normal day. For us, in early March, we were in Juneau advocating for House Bill 181, a bill that would introduce mental health into the Alaska state health education guidelines. Many things about that day feel unfamiliar now: shaking hands with legislators, flying on planes, going out for coffee. Despite how much has changed, the reality of living in a pandemic has only emphasized how ill-prepared we are for mental health crises, and how desperately Alaska’s youth need mental health education. This epidemic affects all Alaskans, and if we want to diminish its impacts on our mental health, education is absolutely essential.

This moment, which we are all facing, is profoundly affecting our mental health. The human brain is not designed for isolation, and several factors make “hunkering-down” a high-risk venture. For students like us, quarantine means the obliteration of routine: video conferencing instead of school classes, a favorite teacher replaced by self-paced learning, sleep schedules transformed by nocturnal activity. Furthermore, other people act as a support system, providing interaction and engagement and perhaps even escape from home environments. Alaska’s youth mental health statistics are notorious: One in three students reported feeling so sad or hopeless that they stopped doing usual activities, and one in eight attempted suicide. Young Alaskans’ mental health is shored up by caring educators, school suicide prevention programs, access to counselors and support systems of friends. By dissolving these protective factors, the COVID-19 pandemic is worsening our existing mental health crisis.

Unfortunately, the prospect of us returning to normalcy is questionable, and, at best, far off. This quarantine has exacerbated numerous pre-existing issues in Alaska, the extent to which will not be known for some time. After social isolation ends, we will begin to witness the psychological toll of the crisis. There could be months, if not years, of tightened and loosened restrictions as waves of infections occur, traumatizing many who are not accustomed to this new way of life. As stated by NAMI CEO Ken Duckworth, “Mental health is a piece of this epidemic and it will have its own waves and its own intensity.” Alaska’s youth are confronting the mental health challenges of this epidemic with inadequate education: current state health guidelines have not been updated for at least twenty years and do not include mental health. Ill preparation for one emergency necessitates better preparation for the next. This should be the case for mental health as well. The earlier we acknowledge Alaska’s lack of mental health education, the sooner we can prepare our youth for the uncertain future that we collectively face.

Recent data collected by the Anchorage School District suggests a 39% decrease in high school seniors’ attendance of their online classes from the first week to the third week, and there is little question as to why. Students who utilize their teachers, peers, and classroom environment as motivation no longer have access to that in-person encouragement. Many students lack the tools to address and cope with this unprecedented crisis and schools do not currently have the ability to guide them. With mental health standards, we can change that. We can make students aware of the risk isolation poses to their mental health. We can teach students healthy coping mechanisms. We can make teachers better prepared for addressing mental health in their classrooms and schools. We can — and we should — pass HB181 in the Alaska Legislature.

Natalie Fraser is an advocate, an aspiring pandemic survivor and a senior at West Anchorage High School. Zoe Kaplan is a writer, dancer and a student at West Anchorage High School. Lucas Johnson is a policy writer, sailor and student in his second year at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine.

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