Mass. high school students open up about mental health crisis

BOSTON — Your local station is getting real about kids and mental health. For the last three years, 25 Investigates has been documenting the impact the pandemic has had on kids.

We have talked to doctors, school leaders and parents. Now, we’re taking a different approach.

Anchor and investigative reporter Kerry Kavanaugh assembled a panel of local high school students to talk about their own experiences, what’s working for them, and where they’re still struggling and need our help.

The students were honest, candid, and brave in talking about what it was like living through a global pandemic, what has helped them since they returned to school, and what they want to see more of.

Their conversation started by the group expressing they felt there is a crisis around youth and mental health. And the group of 9 students said they all experienced a mental health crisis or challenge of their own.

The teens hailed from high schools in Chelsea, Wakefield, and Gloucester. They said when COVID-19 arrived in Massachusetts they had no idea how much their lives would be impacted.

“We were in middle school when the pandemic started,” said Wakefield High freshman, Rosella Buscaino.

“School will be off for a week, two weeks max,” said Chelsea High junior, Clemy Reyes.

“People were losing their jobs, people were getting COVID,” said Allison Rivera, a Chelsea High freshman. “We truly didn’t know what to do.”

Kids were not spared the stress of the pandemic.

“When you change your whole learning way to like learning over a screen it very difficult to grasp the information,” said Gloucester High senior, Kyia Karvelas.

And there was more than learning loss.

“Our social connections were really just like they were lost in that time period. You know, we don’t really know how to interact with each other anymore,” said Wakefield Junior, Alexis Manzi.

“Coming back and just kind of like a sudden just jump back into reality was really hard,” said Buscaino.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, more than 1 in 3 high school students experienced poor mental health during the pandemic. Nearly half of the students felt persistently sad or hopeless. Two-thirds said they had difficulty with schoolwork.

A recent CDC survey found girls and LGBTQ+ youth are disproportionately impacted by the crisis, revealing almost 60% of female students experienced persistent sadness or hopelessness and nearly 70% of LGBTQ+ students.

I know what remote learning looked like. But what did it feel like,” Kavanaugh asked.

“I didn’t like to talk about how I felt or my feelings. I would just push them away. Because I felt like it wasn’t important,” said Chelsea High junior, Taneaya Freeman. “I just kept everything to myself.”

“It was just a very hard situation…having the pressure on themselves to like, pressure themselves to manage school,” said Chelsea High junior, Jonathan Recincoy. “And probably they’re taking care of three of their siblings.”

“It’s been going on even before the pandemic. But the pandemic, it just made it be seen since it all happened all at once,” said Reyes.

And they’re all seeing this crisis, but it still comes with stigma.

“I’m Hispanic, so there’s a stereotype, if you’re depressed, you’re just being lazy,” said Reyes.

“Because it is an invisible illness people don’t like, sometimes they don’t believe in it,” said Gloucester Senior Camilla Wilkins-Bowens.

Kavanaugh asked the students what programs or solutions have been working since they returned to school.

“They’re opening more doors, contacting more college programs, more actual colleges, other things like that. And I really want I want more of that,” said Chelsea High junior Josue Castellon.

“Over the past few years, we get more adjustment counselors and there’s more organizations that come to the school that you can talk to,” said Wilkins-Bowens.

“I think it’s very important that the social workers and members of the school have realized that every student is struggling in their own way,” said Buscaino.

“I feel like this is a good way to speak out,” said Reyes.

And they’re finding the courage to be vulnerable, open up and share.

“Right now, it might be hard, but it will get easier,” Reyes said. I can’t say it got easier for me. I know at some point I will wake up and I will not want to just sit there and cry.”

And these young people told Kavanaugh they are stepping up and learning about mental health to advocate for themselves and their friends.

“No matter how hard the wind blows, you’ve got to keep going,” said Rivera.

“It’s ok to ask for help,” said Karvelas.

“Everybody deserves to live their best life. So really, if you need help, reach out,” said Buscaino.

“You matter,” said Freeman. “Even if you feel somebody is got it worse than you, it’s still important to take care of yourself.”

“You have someone to have a supportive arm with you who will help you throughout your life,” said Recincoy. “You’re not alone.”

A big thank you to our students from Chelsea, Gloucester, and Wakefield for their courage and candor in sharing with us.

Watch an extended version of our conversation below in which the students talk about the effects of social media, positive and negative and how they find the courage to speak out about mental health.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates as more information becomes available.

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