Students at May River High School stay distanced from one another during the first week of hybrid instruction. Being required to stay separated from friends is hard on adolescents. COURTESY BEAUFORT COUNTY SCHOOL DISTRICT

The COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for everyone. Children and adolescents are no exception. Local mental health professionals and school counselors have seen an increase in cases of depression, anxiety, self harm and suicidal ideations among young people.

Not only are kids anxious about getting the virus or losing a loved one; they’re also suffering from a lack of social interaction.

While some of the restrictions have been lifted since the spring, life is far from being back to normal. About 38% of Beaufort County School District (BCSD) students are still doing school virtually, according to Chief Instructional Services Officer Mary Stratos. The students who are physically back at school are there only a couple of days a week, and they are required to wear masks and keep a distance from their peers.

“Families are making the best of a bad situation,” said Lakinsha Swinton, BCSD director of student services. “We know this is not ideal. … It is different, but I will not say that it is devastating overall to our students.”

Stratos said the best education happens through socialization. Children learn how to manage their emotions, maintain healthy relationships and make responsible decisions through their interactions with others. Now those interactions are primarily happening in a virtual setting, which makes things more difficult, but not impossible.

Swinton said the district is currently assessing the social and emotional needs of students in grades 3-12. Once the struggling students are identified, they will receive additional interventions.

Bluffton High School guidance counselor and department head Dana House is concerned because the students who would normally confide in her and the other counselors are not reaching out for help as much now. They can’t just pop in to see a counselor whenever they want and are less likely to send emails about personal problems.

House said in the spring, parents were reaching out with their concerns about their children’s mental health, but they aren’t doing that as much now. Instead, she’s sometimes hearing about students’ struggles after things have gotten so bad that they’ve had to be hospitalized.

House said she can usually tell if there’s a problem by looking at students’ grades, and a significant number of students are not getting good grades right now. However, that could also be attributed to technology issues surrounding virtual and hybrid learning.

Bluffton therapist Jodi Watts works with adolescents and has seen a huge increase in the need for counseling since the end of the summer. The teens who already struggled with social anxiety before the pandemic have experienced heightened levels of anxiety because they haven’t been able to practice their social skills.

“I’ve spent more time connecting with psychiatrists and doctors this year than I ever have because of the severity of things,” Watts said.

On the bright side, the pandemic has taught everyone to be a little more flexible and to think outside the box. It has forced many parents to become more involved in their children’s education. It has led to more quality family time, and has given everyone a chance to reflect on what is and is not working in their lives.

Since children and teens don’t always speak up when they are feeling depressed or anxious, it’s important that parents know the signs that their children might be struggling with their mental health. Parents should pay attention to their children’s sleep, exercise and eating habits, keep an eye on what they are doing online and the types of friends they have.

If a child is spending too much time alone, stops speaking to friends, loses interest in hobbies or stops using social media, those are all cause for concern. Physical symptoms, such as headaches and stomach aches, can also be a sign of emotional distress.

Medical University of South Carolina art therapist Alyssa Millard has seen a huge increase not only in the number of patients dealing with mental health problems but also in the intensity of those conditions. She encourages parents to keep the lines of communication open with their children, and the best way to do that is by setting a time when everyone can come together.

“Maybe it’s game night,” Millard said. “Maybe it’s sitting down doing crafts together. … And if you need the help, seek the help. Take it seriously.”

Swinton and her team at the school district have been putting together resources for parents so they can help their children through these difficult times. The South Carolina Department of Education recently launched a web portal that offers students, parents and teachers resources to promote social-emotional learning. For more information, visit sel4sc.org.

“We’re all very optimistic for the outcomes of our students,” Swinton said. “To see students wearing their masks – they don’t complain about it; they don’t gripe about it. They are just making the best of this situation, and we’re doing everything possible to be able to support them.”

Amy Coyne Bredeson of Bluffton is a freelance writer, a mother of two and a volunteer with the Tuberous Sclerosis Alliance.