In March, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, schools across the United States shut down. When students would be allowed to return was anyone’s guess. On Friday, March 13, my daughter’s middle school announced that it would close. Indefinitely. We don’t know what fall will bring. There’s been no word. It’s particularly unfortunate because she was home sick that day with the flu and didn’t get to say goodbye to her friends or teachers, who, when she returns, will no longer be her teachers. There was and will be no closure. By Monday, March 16, her school began online learning. It was whiplash speed, and, at the end of the first day, my daughter told me that online school was the worst of school without the best: her friends and teachers. When will social distancing end? When will I get to see my friends again? Those were the questions she asked me. My daughter was especially frustrated that we were socially distancing while some of her friends posted photos illustrating that they clearly were not.
Nikki Kontz, LMSW, clinical director at Teen Lifeline (800-248-TEEN), says the peer-to-peer crisis hotline in Arizona has experienced an increase in both calls and texts from teens during the pandemic. The absence of school is part of why. While schools are certainly associated with academic pressures and bullying, they are also a place of escape where teens see their friends and peers. It’s also where many have access to physical activities they can’t get at home.
Anyone who has hung around teens or has been one themselves can attest to the fact that they tend to pull away from the adults in their lives and turn to one another. Kontz says it’s developmentally appropriate for teens to individualize and to compare themselves to each other. “They are figuring out who they are and who they want to be.” Teens often feel that the adults just don’t get it—not solely because they suspect parents are too old to recall life as a teen, but, also, they believe navigating teen life now is far different than before. That’s usually the case, but Kontz points out that social media has permeated the teen experience to such a degree that many adults can’t relate. “We don’t know what it’s like to be a teen in the age of social media.”
Social media often gets a bad rap for ways it has negatively impacted kids’ lives like bullying and taking away from time kids could be experiencing in-person interaction. This is true, says Kontz, but it also allows kids to connect with peers across the world. “Many teens today have close friends they’ve never met face-to-face, and the connections they develop online can be a protective factor in their lives.” Yet, social media can be complicated for kids who are struggling. As much as kids are trying to individualize away from adults, at the same time, they don’t like to feel alone in the world, so they search for someone who is like them, but “sometimes what develops is unhealthy.”
Talking to Someone Who Gets It
Navigating social distancing during a pandemic, the absence of school and face-to-face time with friends and peers, and increased dependency on social media for connection has left many teens feeling in limbo and without the in-person support they typically depend on. Kontz says teen peer counselors give adolescents the opportunity to have conversations about what’s happening in their lives with someone who “gets it.” “It creates immediate rapport.” Kontz should know, she herself was a Teen Lifeline peer counselor at the age of 15. One of her closest friends had died of suicide, and she was spending much of her time supporting her friends. “I was also struggling.” Kontz felt a mix of guilt and anger that her friend didn’t tell her how he was feeling. An observant teacher took note and suggested Kontz volunteer at the peer-to-peer hotline where she could learn skills to cope with the loss she’d experienced and develop boundaries. “I quickly learned that I had to take care of myself in order to help anyone else.”
Noting her tendency not to recharge, her supervisors would suggest Kontz take a break, letting someone else pick up an incoming call, and have her chat with them about her day. “Sometimes it was as simple as slowing down or asking me to play a game with trainees. It taught me that there are many ways to help, and it’s not just jumping at the hardest task.” Unlike most crisis centers, the training peers go through at Teen Lifeline is a separate program focused on life skills development. The secondary outcome is taking calls on the hotline. Kontz found that the training, and working with the supervisors, helped her practice problem-solving. “I had a tendency at 15 to jump in to be part of the resolution if a friend was having a hard time. Over time, I learned to suggest better resources or plans of action. I learned how to say, ‘No, but here is what you can do instead.’ It took practice.”
The training the peers go through is quite extensive—72 hours over a two and a half month period. The objective is to provide teens with life skills like identifying and communicating emotions, problem-solving, developing self-esteem and boundaries, and educating them on suicide and mental health, ethics, and roles. While it’s geared toward how to best answer calls on the hotline, teens practice how to develop these tools in their own lives. “There isn’t much of a difference between callers and counselors; they are dealing with the same challenges.” Just like most people who go into mental health, says Kontz, many of the teens signed up to be counselors to help others because they struggled at some point or are close to someone who did.
Compassion and a Listening Ear
In the United States, suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 10-34. Among vulnerable populations are Black, American Indian, and LGBTQ youth. Kontz says the three primary areas of stress for teens reaching out to Teen Lifeline are home, friends, and school. Roughly 33% of the calls are suicide-related, 20% have to do with family problems, and 15-18% are about relationship issues (friendships or romantic relationships). From there, says Kontz, calls break down into school challenges. She notes that calls and texts to Teen Lifeline are on the rise, increasing around 11% in 2019, with over 28,000 calls and texts. Before the life skills development training, teens are most worried about taking calls from a person experiencing suicidal ideation. Afterward, they feel most prepared to take these calls because the training highlights that suicide is about a person experiencing loss of hope and trying to escape pain. The peer counselor role, notes Kontz, is to help the caller feel heard and identify the problem in their life that has led them to feel that they need to escape. Much of what the peers offer is compassion and a safe space to talk. “For many callers, the peer counselor is the first person they have talked with who was not scared of the word suicide.”
The goal of the peer-to-peer hotline isn’t to fix callers but, instead, to help them feel connected, find a sense of hope, identify the healthy adults in their lives, and reach out for help. The peer counselors work with callers on finding the words to do that. Kontz says the dialogue is a stepping stone for making the next step, which is often scary and hard, easier. “We want teens to come away from those conversations feeling empowered with a sense of, ‘I can do this. I can connect, communicate with people, and make healthy decisions.’ Sometimes, they just need a listening ear and guidance.”
Kontz has integrated teens counselors in each stage of the hotline’s development, including the newest component: texting. She’s glad she did because they quickly called her out on the large texting training program she’d put together, reminding her that texting is how they most frequently communicate. “They told me, ‘You’ve already trained us for the hotline; this is just another form of communication. What you need to train us on is how to work the computer system, and then we will help you to learn the language we use.’ These kids save people’s lives every single day, and their parents couldn’t say that. The feeling of impact they have on this world is huge, and that’s what they are passing along to callers.”
What’s different about teens now, says Kontz, isn’t just that they use social media. It’s also that they are more apt to have conversations about mental health. She notes it’s up to adults to give kids tools early on, along with the opportunities to practice them, so that they can “make mistakes, stumble, and then get up.” More and more calls to the hotline are from kids who are worried about their peers because they communicate about mental health and can identify behavior changes and red flags. They call the hotline to see what they can do. Dialogue about mental health fosters an atmosphere of openness and prevention. “The more we can help kids, the more they can identify issues within their friends and peers, guiding them to the resources that can help.”
She points out that teens are far more resilient than people realize. “When something bad happens, it’s devastating, but the more kids can support each other in knowing that they are not alone, the more they can find the joys of life even in the darkest times.”
To ensure that teens get the help they need when they need it, the Teen Lifeline has extended their texting hours during COVID-19; their crisis hotline remains open 24/7 (800-248-TEEN), and peer counseling is from 3 to 9 p.m. daily PST.