You know how most teens hate being home with parents? How this is the time in their lives for separating from the family, socializing, dreaming, hoping, launching and planning their getaway?
Coronavirus put all these major life leaps on hold, yes.
That’s enough of a struggle. Now imagine that all that forward-motion teen energy is quashed and the home they’re trapped in is toxic, with abuse, addiction or mental health issues. Violence is outside the front door. And they have no escape.
Princy’s life was supposed to be senior year and prom and the knowledge that her smarts and all her hard work would mean college and a shot at a future so different from her present.
But this is her life now:
She’s isolated in a two-bedroom home with a disabled mother and a father struggling with his own issues. “Neither of them work,” Princy, 17, explains, “so tensions are high from being stuck in the same house together day after day. My anxiety attacks, which I’ve struggled with since middle school, have started occurring more frequently, often multiple times a week. A couple weeks ago, my close childhood friend was shot to death outside my apartment.”
The project was co-founded by USA Today health reporter Jayne O’Donnell, who has worked with other health and media professionals to teach kids about the field. They get to meet and interview Washington big shots; they learn writing and video production; and some of their stories are published in USA Today. O’Donnell said she is fascinated by what the kids are drawn to when they begin working with her.
“When we started three years ago, we were going to focus on ‘social determinants of health’ — access to healthy food, transportation, medical care and housing,” O’Donnell said. “But when given a choice on what to do projects on, most of the students gravitate to trauma and mental health.”
Because it’s often what they know and what they live.
There’s a recent college graduate who writes about the stifling effect of the mask she wears at her fast-food job. And a student in shutdown with her 90-year-old great-auntie. Or a beautifully disturbing painting of a world strangled by the coronavirus.
Princy, who is about to graduate from Richard Wright Public Charter School for Journalism and Media Arts, has been interviewing people on their mental health status, how they’re doing without regular therapy sessions and how they’re coping during shutdown.
“Mainly, it’s taken a toll on our mental health. That’s the main problem,” she said. “Our age group isn’t used to this. We do things, we go places, we socialize. Being in the house, being restricted so much isn’t who we are.”
Even the tiny bit of financial freedom that Princy achieves with her part-time job at a pizza place vanished when the restaurant cut her hours.
Their paths to normalcy are gone.
Like that homicide. There were two that Easter weekend that affected kids in the program. It’s a horrific experience no teen should be near. But thanks to the shutdown, the ways kids cope with this explosive kind of trauma — funerals, gatherings, therapy, a big, healing repast — are all gone.
There has been a small flutter of teen suicides across the nation prompted by the coronavirus.
Zakiya Edens, who also works with the media project, sees her high school students online twice a week.
“But we don’t know what’s happening behind the computer screen or the cellphone,” she said.
She regularly does one-on-one FaceTime with all 60 students of the Mass Media Academy at Coolidge High School, where she is the academy director. She knows they may be going through a hell they don’t want to broadcast in a group call.
She knows that it isn’t easy to be kept from the place that is usually their haven.
“School is a safe place for many or our students,” Edens said. “They’re sad they can’t be in their safe place.”
And just because online instruction ends in a matter of weeks, that doesn’t mean the weirdness of being a teen and being isolated ends. Edens plans to stay in touch with her students all summer.
But then what?
Next year will begin with reconnecting, D.C. Public Schools Chancellor Lewis D. Ferebee said earlier this week. That’s only the beginning.
Learning loss might mean algebra is a little fuzzy or verb conjugations have evaporated when kids finally return to a classroom.
The real loss is deeper, emotional and scarring. That’s what adults are going to need to understand and repair once this shutdown ends.
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