April 28, 2020 – Last month, after California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered most of the state’s residents to stay home, I found myself under virtual house arrest with an uncomfortably large number of Gen Zers.
Somehow I had accumulated four of my children’s friends over the preceding months. I suppose some parents more hard-nosed than I would have sent them packing, but I didn’t have the heart — especially in the case of my daughter’s college roommate, who couldn’t get back to her family in Vietnam.
So, I had to convince six bored and frustrated 18- to 21-year-olds that, yes, they too could catch the coronavirus ― that they needed to stop meeting their friends, wipe down everything they brought into the house and wash their hands more frequently than they had ever imagined.
The first two weeks were nerve-wracking. I cringed every time I heard the front door open or close, and when any of the kids returned home, I grilled them remorselessly.
The day after a house meeting in which I laid down the law, I found my son, Oliver, 21, inside his cramped music studio in the back of the house with a kid I’d never seen before. And that night, I saw one of our extra-familial housemates in a car parked out front, sharing a mind-altering substance with a young man who used to visit in the pre-pandemic era.
If I’ve been neurotically vigilant, it’s because the stakes are high: I’ve got asthma and Oliver has rheumatoid arthritis, making us potentially more vulnerable to the ravages of the virus.
But even as I play the role of enforcer, I recognize that these kids are as anxious and worried as I am.
My daughter, Caroline, 18, is filled with sadness and despair, feelings she had largely overcome after going away to college last fall. She recently started doing telephone sessions with her old therapist. Oliver has begun therapy — remotely, for now ― after dismissing it as pointless for the past several years.
A study released this month by Mental Health America, an advocacy and direct service organization in Alexandria, Virginia, shows that people under age 25 are the most severely affected by a rise in anxiety and depression linked to social isolation and the fear of contracting COVID-19.
That is not surprising, even though the virus has proved far deadlier for seniors. Mental health problems were already rising sharply among teens and young adults before the pandemic. Now their futures are on hold, they can’t be with their friends, their college campuses are shuttered, their jobs are evaporating — and a scary virus makes some wonder if they even want those jobs.
Paul Gionfriddo, Mental Health America’s CEO, says parents should be attentive even to subtle changes in their kids’ behavior or routine. “Understand that the first symptoms are not usually external ones,” Gionfriddo says. “Maybe their sleep patterns change, or they’re eating less, or maybe they are distracted.”
If your teens or young adults are in distress, they can screen themselves for anxiety or depression by visiting www.mhascreening.org. They will get a customized result along with resources that include reading material, videos and referrals to treatment or online communities.
The Child Mind Institute (www.childmind.org or 212-308-3118) offers a range of resources, including counseling sessions by phone. If your young person needs emotional support, or just to vent to an empathetic peer, they can call a “warmline.” For a list of numbers by state, check www.warmline.org.
Caroline’s case is probably typical of college kids. She moved back home from San Francisco last month after her university urged students to leave the dorms. Her stuff is stranded up there, and we have no idea when we’ll be able to reclaim it. Meanwhile, she has been planning to share an off-campus apartment starting in August with four of her friends from the dorm. We can get attractive terms if we sign the lease by April 30 ― but what if school doesn’t reopen in the fall?
For Oliver, who’s been living with me all along, the big challenges are a lack of autonomy, a need for money and cabin fever. Those stressors got the best of him recently, and he started doing sorties for a food delivery service. Of course, it makes me crazy with worry every time he goes out, and when he returns home I’m in his face: “Did you wear a mask and gloves? Did you keep your distance? Wash your hands!”
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But what can I do, short of chaining him to the water heater? And if going out — and getting some cash in his pocket ― makes him feel better, that can’t be all bad (unless he catches the virus).
If your kid dares to work outside the house, and you dare let him, several industries are hiring — particularly grocery stores, pharmacies and home delivery and food services. Child care for parents who have to work is also in demand, so your fearless teen might want to ask around the neighborhood.
Volunteering ― again, if they dare — is another good way for young people to feel independent and useful. In every community, there are vulnerable seniors who need somebody to shop for them or deliver meals to their homes. You can use www.nextdoor.com, a local networking app, to find out if any neighbors need help.
Food banks are in great need of volunteers right now. To find a food bank near you, go to www.feedingamerica.org. Blood donations are also needed. Older teens and young adults can arrange to donate by contacting the American Red Cross (www.redcross.org). For a list of creative ways to help, check out Youth Service America (www.ysa.org).
While the kids are inside the house, which in my case is still most of the time, put them to work. “Anxiety loves idle time, and when we don’t have a lot to do, our brain starts thinking the worst thoughts,” says Yesenia Marroquin, a psychologist at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
I’ve harnessed the able bodies of my young charges for household chores. A few weekends ago, I decreed a spring cleaning. They organized themselves with surprising alacrity to weed the backyard, sweep and mop the floors, clean the stove and haul out volumes of trash.
Considering the circumstances, the house is looking pretty darn good these days.
This story was produced by Kaiser Health News (KHN), which publishes California Healthline, an editorially independent service of the California Health Care Foundation. KHN is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente.