High school reporters contribute to continental investigation into youth mental health crisis

Generation Distress

North America’s youth are facing an unprecedented crisis in mental health and COVID-19 has only made it worse. Over the past year, more than two dozen young journalists, including many from the youth-run blog A Teen Perspective, conducted interviews with their peers as part of Generation Distress, an Investigative Journalism Bureau/Toronto Star investigation, to understand how a changing world has impacted their state of mind. 

Here are some of those perspectives:

Amaani Sahib, 18, London, Ont.

 “A huge percentage of the population is struggling, but they’re all just trying to kind-of push it down in order to get the work done that they need to get done for school. So it creates this kind of culture within teenagers where nobody is dealing with their own issues, which negatively impacts them, but they don’t have time to deal with their issues because they’re too busy.”

“I had such a hard time in quarantine. Just mentally, I felt so intellectually drained the entire time. I’d be on a call with my friends for hours just to keep myself a functioning person, so coming back to school and having structure to my day and having people that I can talk to regularly … I am enjoying it a lot, and I’m so happy to have a break from quarantine.”

Lexie, 17, Whitby, Ont.

“I think being away from your peers and all of your friends definitely is not good when you have mental health problems because you know, all the people that are usually there to support you are not.“

“It always seems easier when you’re in class and you can just talk to your teacher at lunch or go to guidance really quickly between your classes, versus having to call and make an appointment … Maybe some people don’t feel comfortable talking about that stuff in their house on the phone. I know I’m kind-of like that sometimes. So I think it’s less accessible.”

Mackenzie Gillies, 17, Oshawa, Ont.

“I think whether you have a mental health problem or a mental illness or not, COVID impacted you negatively … I think that big of a change so quickly and, like, that big of an isolation definitely took a toll on all of my peers.”

“Teachers need to be way more aware of the stress that their job can put on students, because you can be all for supporting mental health and mental illness, but still be completely unaware of the fact that your workload or your teaching methods are, like, harmful.”

Hannah Hewko, 16, Toronto, Ont.

“When you stay home because of mental illness, (teachers) expect you to be doing the work at home, when you’re away….(Last year,) I had to miss a lot of school, and one time, I came to school and we had a test. I didn’t know what was happening, and I just couldn’t do it. And (the teacher) said to me ‘You can’t hide behind your anxiety, you can’t use your anxiety as an excuse.'” And I’m like, ‘That’s not how it works…’ I feel like they think that they’ve already done enough for me, like giving me so many days off that they’re like, ‘Oh, this is where I draw the line; you’ve already gotten so much. Why do you need more stuff?'”

Rebecca Borisenko, 17, Oshawa, Ont.

“I feel like I wasn’t educated very much on mental health and mental illness, so it was …me just figuring out on my own why I was feeling the way I was feeling… It just created a lot of confusion for me and a lot of difficulty trying to figure that out.”

“There’s obviously the guidance department, and they do a lot to try and help the students, but of course, at the end of the day, they’re not licensed therapists.”

“What we were all expecting last year was that we were going to be touring [post-secondary] campuses and actually getting a feel for the school. But now that everything is online again … you’re applying to universities, not knowing how you’re going to feel on the campus, not knowing if you’re actually going to like the program that you chose, because you can’t really get enough information about it to make a decision that you’re confident about. And I feel like that’s causing a lot of stress with a lot of people, just not knowing what you’re getting into before you’re applying.”

Kyleah Laita, 17, Durham Region, Ont.

“My mental health went on a downward spiral during COVID. I had some serious troubles with my family, and then I also had a good friend get diagnosed with COVID. So I had a lot going on, to the point [that] I kind-of pushed my mental health to the side, and it really came back to bite me … I was having severe panic attacks, not sleeping at night because I was so worried about going back to school. I was so worried about everything … it was to the point I had to go to a doctor for it.”

“To this day, I’ve not asked for an extension because I’m so scared … is my teacher going to think I’m lazy? … I do need more time, sometimes, and instead I will force myself to do it, instead of getting that extension.”

“[Amid the pandemic,] it’s a lot more scary, I find, because the courses are so much more condensed that every single thing matters so much. It’s that added-on pressure of ‘Oh my goodness, I did bad on this one test; there is a very good chance I’m going to fail this class.’ … constantly [thinking] ‘I have to be perfect on this; my marks depend on this.'”

Interviews conducted by Siobhan Kelly, Mia Gidge, Sadie Inglis, Tasnia Rahman, Liv Forster and Kyle Munns of A Teen Perspective and Kiana Sharifi, a high school journalist in Toronto

For the Investigative Journalism Bureau, Robert Cribb and Charlie Buckley