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The loneliness of an interrupted adolescence

“I’ll try to be the person you can trust,” Selene Lam, an 18-year-old volunteer at a teen crisis hotline, told a caller in December. (Alyson Aliano/for The Washington Post)

The caller was 17, female and speaking barely above a whisper.

“Lately I’ve been mad all day,” she said on a Friday night in late November. “Mad for no reason. Little things make me mad. I’m angry for no reason. I don’t know if it’s covid . . .”

In a bedroom on the other side of the country a long-haired 16-year-old volunteer for a teen crisis hotline listened through headphones and nodded. “That must be such a strange feeling,” she said.

“I cut myself once,” the caller continued. “Four days ago, maybe. Just to feel something different.”

“Is that something you think you might do again?” the volunteer asked.

“I definitely don’t want people to see me as crazy,” the caller said. “But if I could do it in a place that no one would see it — yeah, I would.”

The pandemic has punished people of all ages, overwhelming parents, isolating grandparents, shortchanging kids. But the emotional fallout for teenagers has been uniquely brutal. At just the age when they are biologically predisposed to seek independence from their families, teens have been trapped at home. Friends — who take on paramount importance during adolescence — are largely out of reach, accessible mostly by social media, which brings its own mix of satisfying and toxic elements.

A June survey by the Centers for Disease Control found that a staggering 26 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds reported having serious suicidal thoughts in the past 30 days, compared with 16 percent of 25- to 44-year-olds and less than 4 percent of people ages 45 and older. And mental health visits to emergency rooms by 12- to 17-year-olds increased 31 percent in 2020 compared with the previous year. Other research shows teens have been getting more sleep and feeling less taxed by their formerly frenetic schedules. But the academic pressure cooker hasn’t disappeared; it’s moved online, where students are forced to manage much of their own time and learning, with less access to teacher assistance. Milestone moments like graduation and homecoming have been erased. And time moves differently to teenagers; a year is not a year to a 14-year-old, it’s one-fourteenth of their life, a quarter of their high school experience.

“So much of their social lives and social development revolves around being at school, interacting with people,” says Michelle Carlson, executive director of Teen Line, a Los Angeles based non-profit. “There’s so much social support at school that is not necessarily accessible. So they’re having a hard time.”

The young volunteers at Teen Line, founded in 1980 to allow teens in crisis to confide in other teens, have a unique view into how teenagers have been surviving the emotional fallout of the pandemic. During the day, those volunteers live out the highs, lows and in-betweens of their own lives in the shadow of the virus and the upheaval it’s caused. At night, they field a deluge of calls, texts and emails from peers who are feeling the darkness creep in on them.

Like that 17-year-old who called in November and talked about cutting herself. Angry and confused, desperate for relief.

“I just want to crawl under a rock,” she had said. “If I could cut off the whole world, I would.”

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At the start of the pandemic Teen Line paused operations while staff figured out how to operate remotely. When they came back online last summer, calls flooded in. Relationship issues were still the most common complaint among teens, but the hotline has seen a marked increase in teenagers grappling with self-harm, suicidal thoughts and child abuse. They’re fighting with their parents, sick of their siblings and missing once-reliable emotional outlets, like venting to friends between classes.

America’s teens were struggling before the pandemic. Suicides among young people rose 57 percent between 2007 and 2018. And the National Institutes of Health estimates that a third of all U.S. teens will experience an anxiety disorder during their youth. Many psychologists point to the rise in smartphones and social media use as a major factor contributing to teenage despair, amplifying social drama and compelling teens to constantly compare themselves to peers.

Now, as a result of the pandemic, adolescent psychologists are reporting a dramatic influx in therapy inquiries and waitlists for inpatient psychiatric wards across the country. “They’re trying to navigate this huge change — a huge change in their social lives, a huge change in their home lives and a change in their academics. They’re trying to understand what their futures will be like and that is throwing many teens in crisis,” says Colby Tyson, associate medical director of inpatient psychiatric services at Children’s National Hospital in Washington. “We are looking at a significant mental health burden. We’re all trying to kind of figure out how to take care of our kids.”

Meanwhile some of the kids have been trying to figure out how to take care of each other.

Before the pandemic, Teen Line's volunteers would gather in a room at Cedars-Sinai Hospital for each shift. Now, they log on to Zoom from their bedrooms, surrounded by unfinished homework assignments and tattered stuffed animals, waiting to be assigned calls, texts and emails by the trained therapists who oversee the program.

Abi Raderman, 18, started volunteering in June 2019. She’d struggled with her own mental health for as long as she can remember, coping with anxiety, depression and panic attacks. None of it was easy, but it taught her a lot about the human condition. An older cousin had once volunteered with Teen Line, and to Raderman that seemed like a good way to put her hard-won knowledge to use.

“If I’m running in this world, I might as well, like, do some good with it,” Raderman says from her bedroom in the Sherman Oaks neighborhood of Los Angeles. She raced through the more than 100 hours of training required to field calls, role-playing scenarios with hotline staff members pretending to be teens in the midst of breakdowns and breakups.

When her training was complete, Raderman, who hopes to become a clinical psychologist some day, volunteered for as many Teen Line shifts as she could get.

“It’s so empowering after every shift to know that for that night I was there for someone,” she says. “I helped someone who didn’t feel heard to be heard.”

When the coronavirus first arrived, last March, quarantining at home had been a boon for Raderman, an introvert who craves alone time. “I always have, like, a little trouble with the physical aspect of school,” she says. “Just, like, going every day and being surrounded by so many people. I get very easily overwhelmed.” But her relief ebbed as the weeks ticked on and her dark thoughts multiplied.

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“I spent most of that time in my room completely isolated from everyone and everything,” she says. When she wasn’t doing virtual school she spent endless hours scrolling through her phone, disconnected from her friends and extended family. “I was really struggling, and I wasn’t able to get the type of treatment I needed because everything was locked down. So things kept getting worse.”

In early April, Raderman was referred to an inpatient psychiatric facility for anxiety and depression, but she had to wait three weeks for a bed. Her five weeks of treatment were a godsend, she says. It gave her a break from social media and a supportive environment “where I felt safe to work through things.”

The time at the facility helped put Raderman in a good enough place to enjoy her summer and enter her senior year feeling optimistic. But Raderman knows the shadows lurk — for her, and for the young people who make anonymous calls to Teen Line.

That Friday night in November, Raderman’s first call was from a 17-year-old who had just caught his girlfriend cheating. He was calling from outside her house.

Raderman hadn’t dealt with a situation quite like this before, but after talking for 10 minutes she was able to persuade the caller to drive home and calm down before confronting his girlfriend.

She heard his engine shut off, then the line went dead.

Most of the teens who called or texted were communicating the same message, in one way or another:

I feel so alone.

The pandemic had stolen so much, including the thing they wanted most: time with each other.

On the first Tuesday in December, the texts to Teen Line stacked up faster than the six volunteers on duty could answer them.

My school had recently switched online due to covid and now i’m having way more assignments and work to do and my mom signed me up for an online sat prep course that’s super intense AND i;m on my schools speech and debate team and our tournament is this weekend and i’m really nervous and scared for it

Teen Line volunteer Jonathan Gelfond, 16, has seen dozens of texts like that since March. He can imagine writing a text like that himself in a moment of panic.

Navigating school while schools navigate covid has been stressful. To Gelfond, who goes to class online for the first half of each day and then does hours of homework in the afternoons and evenings, it’s felt as if the workload has increased while support has bottomed out. “The whole routine that we were used to — going to in-person class, having the chance to talk to your teacher after class — that whole system has been completely changed,” he says.

School systems are reporting alarming numbers of students falling behind. And between February and June of 2020 the share of U.S. youths who were neither in school nor employed more than doubled, according to the Pew Research Center. They are disconnected from fundamental structures of society, a fissure that can have long-term emotional and economic ramifications.

But even the teens who are still enrolled, logged on from home, are feeling disconnected.

“I have had kids begging and wishing to go back to school, which is not typical,” says Tyson, of Children’s National Hospital. Teenagers crave structure and socialization, she says; schools offer both. And they can be refuges for LGBTQ kids who don’t have family support and for kids whose home lives are marked by abuse.

Gelfond, the Teen Line volunteer, knows how lucky he is. His parents both have jobs. He gets along with his older brother, who should be off at college but is studying at home. Still, pandemic life been rough. Gelfond is a procrastinator, a tendency that virtual school has exacerbated.

“Being at a computer for four hours a day, then taking a break and then going to do homework on a computer for another three to four hours has been really difficult,” he says. “I’m not as organized doing it from home.”

Life’s normal hardships, only made more difficult by the pandemic. Gelfond’s 90-year-old grandmother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in September. The family couldn’t be with her when she entered hospice care after Thanksgiving. “It was hard not to be able to give my grandfather a hug when he needed it most,” Gelfond said, a day after his grandmother’s funeral.

“You can’t be there in the same ways that you were in the past,” he says. “It’s difficult, having those restrictions that limit our ability to support one another.”

Another incoming text:

Well, before the whole quarantine happened I was doing really good and I was happy and thriving. After about 5 months I was friend dumped by my 2 best friends and I've felt more sad and idk maybe a little depressed. I just need to talk to someone because lately I've been feeling more alone than usual.

Friend drama has always been the bane of teen and tween girl existence. Social media allowed the drama to play out publicly, with pictures. Then the pandemic exiled almost all of teenage social life to that online fishbowl.

Lily Kramon, 16, just sighs when she starts to think about it. Kramon, a high school sophomore, has been volunteering at Teen Line since last February. She’s been on Instagram since seventh grade, Snapchat since eighth. Like many teens, she knows social media is a double-edged sword — one that seemed to become both more indispensable and more injurious during the pandemic.

Even before coronavirus, the apps could cause her angst. “It’s so easy to start just, like, over-analyzing your friend group. Like, ‘Is that person really my friend?,” she says. “And social media is now a way for you to see when your friends are hanging out without you.”

Kramon is a gregarious, social-butterfly type — “very much a hugger,” she says. She’s been disappointed by some friends’ lack of effort to connect during the pandemic,and wrecked by photographic evidence that other friends have gotten together without inviting her. Due to the pandemic, in-person meetups are more exclusive these days, and that only makes an invite more coveted.

That hasn’t been enough to drive Kramon away from her phone. Sometimes she’s on two screens at once — learning virtually and scrolling simultaneously.

“When you get bored, like, it’s so easy just to go on your phone,” she says. “There’s nobody there to tell you not to.”

Quitting social media doesn’t feel like a viable option: Some of her friends communicate exclusively through the apps. They don’t even bother with texting anymore. More than ever, the little screen is where things are happening. But it’s also a black hole. The constant scrolling has made Kramon more insecure. “I find myself comparing myself to influencers and other people who I follow. And it becomes a huge thing about confidence,” she says. “It’s a little bit of a competition. While I’m on social media it’s like, let me look at Charli D’Amelio. And then I’m like ‘Oh my God, look at her body.’ ”

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Psychologists have noted a rise in eating disorders among teenagers over the course of the pandemic. At Children’s Hospital, in Washington, doctors are normally treating five or six eating-disorder patients on any given day. But for the past six months they’ve been seeing twice that number, many of them in much worse shape, having lost up to 40 pounds by the time they are admitted.

Therapists suspect the jump is due in part to the increased exposure to filtered, Photoshopped pictures of people on social media and the decreased exposure to real human bodies as they actually appear. The pandemic didn’t create this source of anxiety in teens, but it might be making it more relentless.

“When you’re in school it’s a different kind of attitude,” says Kramon, “because you really see the truth of everyone’s different bodies and are more accepting of each other.”

Volunteering for Teen Line has helped Kramon stay hopeful while she waits for vaccines to accelerate a return to normal life. Some of the calls have been hard. Late last year she talked to a boy who in the past year had an aunt and uncle die in a car accident, a cousin commit suicide, a grandmother die of covid-19 and both parents become severely ill with the illness.

“I can’t understand what you’re going through, but I want to,” she remembers telling him. The caller talked for almost a half an hour and told Kramon at the end that he felt a little better for having told his story.

That’s one thing Kramon appreciates, even on the most painful calls. Every time she talks to a caller the connection feels real, even if it’s with someone she’ll never speak to again. There’s no posing or putting up a front. Those moments, at least, are unfiltered.

"I'm having trouble trusting people," a 16-year-old caller said on a Friday night in December. She'd been in conflict with her parents, who thought she was lying about a boy she'd been dating. Under pressure, some of the teen's friends had given up her secrets.

“Now I don’t even know who to talk to.”

“I’m all ears,” said Selene Lam. “I’ll try to be the person you can trust.”

Lam, 18, sat in her bedroom, wire-framed glasses on, sweatshirt hood pulled up around her head, bed unmade. The specifics of this call were unique, but the theme was a common refrain. Families — ugh.

“If you’re spending every day in the house with your family, it’s kind of hard not to be driven crazy by your parents,” says Lam, a senior at a Los Angeles charter school. “So a lot of teens have called and texted about family intruding on their personal space.”

Unlike some of the kids she talks to at Teen Line, Lam feels like the pandemic has improved her relationships with her family, especially her mom. “We didn’t have, like, the strongest connection before the pandemic just because we’ve both been so busy with our own stuff,” Lam says. But over the last nine months, “I got to spend more time with her.”

School, too, has felt easier as a result of the pandemic. Lam says she’s always been academically driven, but has been able to let up on herself a bit this year. And to Lam, being out of the typical school environment has felt freeing.

“I got more confident over the pandemic,” she says. “Talking behind a screen is so much easier than talking in front of the public, speaking in front of an entire class. I’m more willing to speak out my opinions.”

Lately, Lam has begun putting Post-It notes on the wall above her desk. Some of them contain chemical formulas she’s memorizing for AP chemistry. (“Sulfuric Acid, H2SO4.”) The rest are lists of things Lam is grateful for. “Spotify wraps.” “Oat milk.” “Mom folding clothes.”

Lam immigrated to the U.S. from Hong Kong at age 14, spent her first few years here trying to memorize Taylor Swift songs, lose her accent and assimilate. The time away from school has given her an opportunity to think more about who she wants to be, not just who she’s supposed to be.

Recently, Spotify showed Lam a list of her 100 most-played songs of the year. They were all in English. “I realized I don’t have any of my Chinese songs that I grew up on,” she says. So she started adding some of her old Cantonese favorites back to the mix.

The pandemic hasn’t been universally bad for teens. Therapists who work with adolescents say that for many of their clients, the quarantine, especially early last spring, felt like a release valve to their pressure-packed lives. For teenagers predisposed to depression and anxiety, “a lot of alone time with your depressive thoughts is not great,” says Nicole McGarry, a Northern Virginia therapist who works with a lot of young people. At the same time, she says, “Some of my clients had a really profound experience of solitude. It was sort of like they were on detox.”

Lam has had a better time than many others. But her time as a volunteer for Teen Line has given her a glimpse of how hard the pandemic has hit some of her peers.

“I’ve gotten more anxiety this year because everything is crazy,” Lam’s Friday-night caller told her. “I cry every day because life sucks right now.”

The caller couldn’t see it, but Lam nodded slightly while she listened. They talked for almost 30 minutes before Lam pointed the caller to websites where she could find information on healthy coping mechanisms, like deep breathing and journaling, and organizations that could help her find a therapist.

“I really hope that you can do what’s best for you,” Lam said before they hung up. “And I hope you have a good night.”

Hope is important, and the Teen Line volunteers are trying to keep a firm grip on it. Lam is hoping for a slew of college acceptances come spring. Raderman is hoping to get her driver’s license soon. Gelfond is hoping his senior year of high school will take place inside a school building. Kramon is hoping to hug her friends again, before too long.

But their biggest hope, for themselves and for the kids who call in, is that some day soon they’ll all feel a little less alone.