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Students in Washoe County cope with pandemic-related mental health issues

A teen girl is sitting in a classroom beside her laptop. The laptop is open and there is a piece of digital artwork displayed.
Nick Stewart
KUNR Youth Media
AACT senior Avalon Bussick is showing off her recent artwork during her graphic design class on Feb. 10, 2022, in Reno, Nev.

The COVID-19 pandemic has put a spotlight on the importance of mental health. For students at one high school in Reno, many are grappling with mental health issues created by a mixture of pandemic anxiety along with changes to their academic routines and limited socialization. KUNR Youth Media’s Nick Stewart explores this issue and how art can help.

On a recent afternoon at the Academy of Arts, Careers, and Technology (AACT), students gathered at tables to enjoy lunch together. Over the past two years, sharing a meal with friends was not always possible because of the swift transition to remote learning when the pandemic began. While students are back at school, Avalon Bussick says things are still tough, even now.

“As a senior in high school, I have spent more than half of my high school experience in the pandemic. And I’ve noticed that a lot of my peers and I have had decreasing mental health due to the fact that we can’t have a normal high school experience, like hang out with our friends, have school dances, the normal things that you would get in your high school experience,” said Bussick.

Last fall, one of Bussick’s close friends passed away from suicide.

“Nobody should have to feel like they just have nobody around them, nobody to reach out to, and I think that it’s just important to make sure everyone feels like they have someone,” said Bussick.

Along with facing mental health concerns, such as anxiety and depression, many students are struggling with their daily routines. After they had gotten used to the online class schedule, the transition back to in-person instruction was a struggle in itself.

“It has definitely been difficult, especially with a hybrid schedule. I remember I wasn’t sleeping at all because switching from being able to stay in bed until 8 to having to wake up at 6 just made it so mentally straining that I just couldn’t sleep at all,” said Caden McDonald, another senior at AACT.

As of 2020, youth mental health in Nevada ranks 51st, making it the worst out of any region in the United States according to Mental Health America. This ranking was determined by several factors, such as the number of youth that had at least one major depressive episode in the last year. Erin Levenberg is a licensed family and marriage therapist, and she came to AACT last fall to help combat these issues.

“I have seen, you know, colleagues, friends that are therapists in the community are completely booked, even unable to take waiting lists. There are so many people that have been struggling with mental health, and children and teens are not alone,” said Levenberg.

An important part of Levenberg’s job is making sure students aren’t considering harming themselves.

“The most concerning issues that I see presented are probably suicidal ideation, which is kind of a very scary symptom that’s hard to predict even when you do screening,” said Levenberg.

Levenberg advises parents to be alert for signs that their child might not be coping with the challenges created by the pandemic. Those can include but are not limited to changes in mood, academic performance, or appetite. As for students like Bussick, she’s come up with her own coping mechanisms.

“I have found that through art a lot. I’m in the graphic design academy in my school, and I also love drawing and painting, and I found that is a good way to channel my emotions,” said Bussick.

She recently designed an abstract digital portrait for an art contest and shared some details on the meaning behind the piece.

There is an abstract face with distorted features. The head has a crown on it, which includes smaller faces depicting different emotions along the top. The portrait uses many colors, such as purple and red.
Courtesy of Avalon Bussick
An abstract portrait created by Avalon Bussick for an art competition. The piece is meant to express Bussick’s emotions in a unique way.

“This human figure is somewhere in outer space. ... And on top of them, there are just many different emotions on their head. We have sadness, we have contentment, we have jealousy, happiness, anger and also anxiety,” said Bussick.

Rachel Robinson has been Bussick’s graphic design teacher for a few years. In the classroom, she has been able to get a close look at how students process their emotions through artwork.

“Art is so wonderful for doing that, for conveying emotion and showing your highs and your lows. And maybe you have a political message. Maybe you want to show how painful life has been these last two years. A lot of kids have lost family members, a lot of kids are struggling with their mental health, and that’s huge,” said Robinson.

Robinson says that despite the challenges of the pandemic, she has seen her students use that pain to harness their creativity and cultivate empathy.

If you or anyone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts, there is help available at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

KUNR’s Youth Media program is a special partnership with the Washoe County School District to train the next generation of journalists. Over the past several years, this program has trained dozens of high school journalists, many of whom have gone on to study journalism or a related field in college. This unique program has also received national recognition from the Public Media Journalists Association in the best collaborative effort category. You can view and listen to all of the program’s student work here.

Nick Stewart is a former student reporter at KUNR Public Radio.
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