Mental health a concern as schools start

Mental health of young people is a bigger concern than ever.

“With the continued uncertainty around COVID, we anticipate that there will be some new and different social and emotional issues this fall for students,” it says on the Bainbridge Youth Services website. “We believe in the power of youth. Life is messy, ask for help.”

Courtney Oliver, BYS executive director, said their eight counselors are here to do just that, for free.

Oliver said at the end of the last school year most students went back in-person but it was part-time.

“It’s a huge adjustment going back to school,” she said. “This year it’s all day. It’s a whole new ballgame. They haven’t done that in such a long time.”

She said many of their clients said the first day was “exhausting.”

“It’s going to get better. You’re going to get into your groove again,” she said the students were told. “You have many years of experience. You’ve done this.”

Oliver said many were concerned they don’t know their friends anymore because they haven’t seen them much in 1 1/2 years. She advises them to be gentle with themselves and ease back into life.

She said they have a variety of clients. Some come all throughout high school. Others on a weekly basis. Others off and on. And others come a couple of times and never return.

“Our philosophy here is we want kids to be here on their own – not to be forced,” she said. “You can come here and your story is safe.”

Teen concerns

Along with COVID, teens have the same concerns they always do.

Sexual assault is one. A group of students asked for a support group, and BYS provided one. It was still an issue during COVID with so much isolation.

Bullying was another, especially cyber bullying during COVID. “There was some really inappropriate stuff,” Oliver said, referring how mean folks can be online. “The more hidden you are the more brave you are in what you say. It’s about instant gratification – not really looking at the big picture.”

Counselors can help with that – having the client step back, breaking down what’s behind it and encouraging empathy.

Depression is another common issue. “We do have kids with suicidal thoughts,” though no one has followed through, she said, adding they don’t hide from the topic and talk openly about it.

Sexual orientation issues have become more common. “I feel like I’m this gender, but I don’t know,” Oliver said students might say. “How do I talk with my parents about it?’

Drug and alcohol use is common on the island among teens. “It’s always an issue with peer pressure,” Oliver said. “How do you say no? You get to high school and you may choose different paths” from your friends.

Oliver said some students were upset that they were following the rules while others were not. They would see on places like Instragram that all their friends were going out and having fun. So peer conflict and having family problems were escalated. It can be tough to tell if the problem is temporary or not, but if it doesn’t start to improve the client will be referred to their primary care physician.

“It depends on what the symptoms are and how severe,” Oliver said. “What does their support look like already?”

Grief counseling also is done, such as after the tragic crash last spring that killed three BHS girls.

Eating disorders also became an issue during COVID as students turned to food for comfort. “They struggle with their weight,” Oliver said, adding BYS will refer clients to doctors to get a support system in place.

During the isolation, “A lot of things started bubbling up,” Oliver said. “There was the fear of missing out.”

Oliver said her staff did a wonderful job during COVID online. Because services were so easy to use, BYS was able to increase summer hours never maintained before. “A big need is kids still need to be seen. But we have limited capacity of people in the building,” Oliver said.

She said they have seen an increase in clients who’ve never had counseling before – especially males. She said it’s more likely their parents have a stigma of seeing a counselor than they do. “They’re more likely to be open” to it, she said.

Counselor’s perspective

Helen Burke became a BYS counselor during the pandemic in April of 2020. She has a caseload of 17 clients she used to see all online, but now sees about half in person.

She said students are always anxious about the start of school, but this year more so because, “The last 18 months have been so strange. It just amplifies the anxiety.”

To deal with that, Burke asks them, “What’s the worst that might happen? What would you do if that happened? And how would you get through that?”

She said it’s human nature to think the worst so if you are prepared for that everything else is easier to accept. But she also explains how students lose a lot when they always think of the worst. So how about focusing on what good things might happen?

She reminds them of the resources they have that have gotten them through hard things before. Parents can remind them of what their strengths are. And remind them that in life we have to accept that things will be hard sometimes. Burke said high school is a tough time because everyone feels judged. Students want to be perceived a certain way and, “That heightens the fear.”

“Anxiety will not go away completely,” she said, but “what works for you to cope. Don’t look at it like it’s the enemy.”

Get young people to accept themselves, even the parts they may not like. Many times it’s just “superficial things.”

Burke said she doesn’t have a magic toolbox to help them solve their problems. But they do. “How did they get through other hard times before? They have to draw on what they have. I can’t give it to them.”

Parents can best help their kids by supporting them. “The biggest thing is being a safe harbor for them. Provide a calm, protected space for them,” Burke said. Do more listening than talking. Make time for them, even if it’s not convenient for you. “One bad day does not mean their future is ruined.”

As for parents, she recommended getting support for themselves. “Parenting is so hard,” she said.

Burke said since the start of school, students seem a little more settled.

“Catastrophes mostly didn’t happen,” she said. “But they need space to talk about what they were feeling.”

She said while she’d rather counsel students in person because a lot can be picked up by body language, etc., doing it online during COVID went better than she expected.

“I was surprised how meaningful it could be,” she said, adding clients were usually at home in a place where they feel comfortable so they were open and honest.

“It’s better than not doing it at all,” she said, adding it’s also good because people don’t have to commute, and there could be health concerns.

Another concern of young people this year is, “What is real?” She said many feel detached because the online school created separation of relationships. “Anxiety gets in the way of doing what they want to do,” she said.

It can be “paralyzing,” with some kids having a hard time caring or getting motivated.

“School was all of the work and none of the fun,” the past 18 months with COVID, she said.

Counselor’s letter

Dana Martin, another BYS counselor, wrote in an online letter that she has seen a wide range of feelings about going back to school – “ranging from disbelief that summer went by so fast, to counting the days until everyone can get back to a routine and be around their peers again.”

Martin said there is added uncertainty regarding COVID. “Whenever things feel out of our control, we tend to get nervous or anxious about the outcome.”

The best way to deal with that is to focus on things we can control. She said schedule things like study times, family meals, social interactions, time spent alone or enjoying hobbies. “It is normal when we are feeling anxious to think these things do not matter. Anxiety can feel crippling and debilitating, which is why it might be difficult for teens to start and stick to a routine. Taking even a small step towards a healthy routine, whatever that looks like for you and your family, can help get you moving in the right direction.”

Martin said students might be concerned about a heavy workload of academics, after things have been in disarray so long due to COVID. She advises them to have realistic expectations. “Doing things ‘perfectly’ is always an illusion, while just showing up and trying your best at any given moment is something we are all capable of,” she writes.

High school volunteer

Lucas Massa, a junior at Bainbridge High School, is active with the BYS service club that writes letters to senior citizens, cleans up parks and other community service projects. Lucas said he struggled to fit in with extracurricular things like sports in school, so he likes volunteering.

He also has been a BYS tutor, helping others with subjects like Spanish. He said he’s taken the subject in school about five years, and also spoke it all the time when he worked at Hammy’s Burgers at Lynwood Center.

The class president said he’s not tutoring now because he’s involved in lots of clubs and works four days a week. He plans to continue with volunteering, however, because it’s become a hobby.

The basics

Since 1962, the mission has been to promote the social and emotional well-being of those ages 13-21. It is an independent nonprofit located on the BISD campus in the yellow house across from the Aquatic Center. State law allows minors age 13 and older to initiate mental health services without parental consent. If vaccinated, appointments can be in person, otherwise it’s online. Thanks to donors, business sponsorships and grants, everything is free. A fundraiser Oct. 14 will be virtual.

In focusing on mental health and academic support as well as service, this year it is offering:

Counseling: Professional, confidential, mental health counseling (No insurance information necessary.)

Tutoring: Peer tutoring by high school student volunteers, grades K – 12

Service club: Connects teens to their peers and community through service

Silver Tech Squad: Youth support senior citizens in learning about their tech devices

On the web

The website is

Teen Toolbox: Grief and loss, racism, COVID behavioral health, basic needs, hope and well-being, and relationships.

Adult Toolbox: Going back to school is a mixed bag. Reflecting on a difficult time, and Getting comfortable with mental health. Also, sexual assault, substance abuse and eating disorders.

Helen Burke

Helen Burke

Dana Martin

Dana Martin