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Rutgers faculty discusses impact of remote learning on mental health

Challenges due to online learning and the anxiety from the pandemic can exacerbate preexisting mental health issues among teenagers, said PJ Wenger, senior training and consultation specialist at the Northeast and Caribbean Mental Health Technology Transfer Center at the Rutgers School of Health Professions. – Photo by Pixabay

With many schools operating in a mostly remote or hybrid manner due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, the mental health of teens continues to be impacted.

PJ Wenger, senior training and consultation specialist at the Northeast and Caribbean Mental Health Technology Transfer Center at the Rutgers School of Health Professions, said teens are greatly affected by the pandemic due to the loss of many forms of socialization.

“I think when the pandemic started ... the term that was being used was ‘social distancing,’ and it really should have been ‘physical distancing’ and not (a) loss of social connection,” Wenger said.

She said families have varied in how they adhere to COVID-19 precautions, which has caused some teenagers to feel distressed by observing differing levels of social isolation.

“Early in the quarantine, we were aware that one-third of adolescents were reporting higher levels of loneliness,” Wenger said.

Instead of becoming socially isolated, she said it is best for teens to get creative and come up with new ways to stay connected to their peers, such as writing letters to each other or participating in activities like cooking and baking over video calls. Going for a bike ride or practicing driving are also good activities since they get teenagers out of the house, Wenger said.

A change of scenery is crucial not only for teens in terms of socialization, Wenger said, but also for focus on school work. Establishing different areas in the home other than their bedroom for learning, as well as establishing a normal schedule and routine, are important for maintaining some semblance of normalcy, she said.

Wenger said remote learning has added to these difficulties, as being online for an extended amount of time is exhausting both physically and emotionally. She said that remote learning has made it harder for students to pay attention, and now teachers cannot see if students are on their phones or doing other activities while in class.

Students have also experienced an increased workload and have a more apathetic attitude about completing assignments, as well as feeling like they do not have as much access to their teachers, she said.

“I don’t want to say that children are losing learning, but I think, that part of that is happening,” Wenger said.

Students with existing mental health problems may have their conditions worsened by online learning. Additionally, the uncertainty of the pandemic can also be a source of anxiety for students, Wenger said. There also has been increased risk for children who live in abusive homes, as most of the reports to the Department of Child Protective Services were previously made by the schools, where children received more supervision by faculty, she said.

Wenger said she believes these challenges are even more of a reason for faculty to be trained in mental health first aid, which is comprised of understanding mental health issues, destigmatizing mental health as well as implementing suicide prevention education and tactics. 

The training is now done in a 5-hour virtual training session, in comparison to the original in-person training which was 8 hours, she said.

“Even when we were in-person, students (spent) the majority of their time (each) day in school. So teachers really need to understand the signs and symptoms so they can recognize (them) and intervene if there is a problem,” she said. “With the hybrid learning, it’s even more important because we’re not seeing our students every day, so we need to be able to recognize the signs and symptoms.”

For 24/7 support services, call 911, call the National Suicide Hotline (1-800-273-8255) or text the Crisis Text Line (text HOME to 741741).


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