Pandemic panic is afflicting more than just the adult population. With the COVID-19-necessitated closures of local public schools, the township government’s Youth Interventionist Program has seen an increase in the need for it to provide mental health services among students.
“We’ve seen a lot more spikes in anxiety and depression,” said Megan Traficano, Oak Park Township youth services director.
The Youth Interventionist Program provides counseling and support services for River Forest and Oak Park youths and their families. The program serves kids ages six to 18, kindergarteners up to high school seniors.
Unable to meet in person, sessions now take place virtually, on the phone or through video meeting services.
“We are also checking in with everyone’s families once a week and do phone sessions as needed with them,” Traficano said.
Just as the pandemic has changed the daily routines of those in the work force, kids have seen their lives change drastically in a very short period of time.
“They are losing a lot of things,” said Traficano. “All extra curriculars and sports are cancelled, graduation is up in the air, routines are shattered by not being able to see friends and family.”
COVID-19 itself has caused youths to experience heightened states of unease and stress.
“There is anxiety around getting sick, or their family, especially those who have family members in the vulnerable age range, becoming sick” said Traficano. “Of course, even dealing with the fear of death of loved ones.”
The virus has disrupted the process of attending school, perhaps the biggest routine the under 18 age set has. And school closures impact more than just the way kids now have to learn.
“For some youth, school was a safe space, where they did not have to worry about home life,” Traficano said. “Others already may have struggled with anxiety and depression or other mental health issues and this crisis just intensified it.”
COVID-19 prevents youths from engaging in normal spring activities. No playing on playgrounds or kicking around a soccer ball. The village closed all public fields, courts and playgrounds to prevent further spread of the disease.
For teenagers, the COVID-19 crisis has also deprived them of certain American rites of passage – events they had looked forward to probably for years.
“Eighth graders and seniors in high school are losing possible graduations and dances and all these important big life events and celebrations,” said Traficano. “We’re seeing a lot of depression around that.”
Out of all the children the program serves, kids in high school seem to be having the hardest time psychologically, said Traficano.
Four former clients – all of them in high school –have since returned to the Youth Interventionist Program for further support.
“We’re reopening [their cases] on a temporary basis, just to get them over this crisis, help reinforce those coping skills and life skills that they learned while they were in our program and support them through this,” Traficano said.
The Youth Interventionist Program is also taking on new clients and accepting referrals. In fewer than two weeks, the program received a total of five referrals. The program has also started offering temporary services to help youth through the pandemic.
“Maybe we just do a telehealth session with them once a week for a month, for two months to get through this crisis and then hook them back up with their support person once everything reopens,” said Traficano.
The resilience and adaptability of youth, Traficano believes, is important to remember, even if particular individuals need a little extra support.
“It’s OK to need help every once in a while, and we all need to remember that, youth and adults alike,” she said.
Currently, the program has a caseload of 37 individuals, but Traficano expects that number to rise once reality sets in that schools likely won’t reopen before summer break – an extended state of forced separation from friends and classmates.
While necessary for public health, that isolation can be lonesome, despite advances in technology-based communication.
“Youth are lucky that there are so many virtual and technological options to stay in touch,” Traficano said. “What’s interesting though is for a generation who has grown up with cell phones, computers, and technology at their fingertips, they are missing and craving the face-to-face interactions with friends and family.”