More than a year after the global pandemic began, students at the Academy of the Sacred Heart in Michigan gathered for a project that gave them a break from what had become the norm. Instead of working alone or focusing on COVID-19, they collaborated on a Rustic Pathways’ Design Challenge to address environmental issues in Costa Rica.
The students worked as a team and completed problem-solving tasks that helped them address the elephant in the room – how COVID-19 has caused tremendous stress for many teens like them. The project gave them some tools to handle it.
“Design thinking taught us that when we’re very overwhelmed by a big challenge to break it down into steps and work with one other,” Dianna said. “It relieves stress to have others support me if I don’t have an answer.”
It’s clear that connecting with others in this way is a particularly strong need for teens. Because of that, the isolation caused by the pandemic – in addition to the stress created by a global crisis – has taken a heavy toll on many young people. Overall, the statistics gathered so far have been daunting.
“Social isolation and loneliness increased the risk of depression up to 9 years later.”
– Dr. Karen Dineen Wagner
The Mental Health Cliff
Before Covid-19 even began, a decline in teen mental health was an increasing concern for health care officials. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found in a 2019 survey of youth that 37% of those questioned reported they persistently felt sad or hopeless.
The key to healthier outcomes centered on connection:
When COVID-19 took away daily routines and common connections, the mental health of many teens worldwide suffered. Numerous young people who were standing on the edge began to fall off the cliff into crisis. In October 2020, the Psychiatric Times looked at studies from around the world on how young people were faring. Just months into the pandemic, the findings were discouraging:
- In China, a survey of junior and high school students during the early outbreak found that nearly 44% reported being depressed and 37% were anxious.
- In Bangladesh, during lockdown more than one in four parents rated their children’s mental health problems as being moderate or severe.
- In Spain and Italy, nearly 86% of parents reported changes in their children’s emotions and behaviors during quarantine, including more irritability, loneliness and difficulty concentrating.
- In the United States, emergency room visits for mental health problems for youth ages 12-17 rose dramatically in 2020. Visits were 31% higher between March and October than they were the previous year.
As the crisis has continued, long-term health has become an increasing concern. A systematic study conducted by University of Bath researchers in the United Kingdom looked at the historical impact of isolation and loneliness. It found the outlook for many adolescents may be worrisome. Dr. Karen Dineen Wagner from the University of Texas highlighted key findings of the study that may be relevant to today’s youth.
“Social isolation and loneliness increased the risk of depression up to 9 years later,” Dr. Wagner wrote. “Duration rather than intensity of loneliness was more strongly associated with mental health symptoms.”
These studies suggest an increasing necessity to help teens re-connect with others now and in the coming years. To do this, it helps to consider the opposite side of the equation and focus on what increases a teenager’s sense of well-being.
“It was good to connect virtually with people from Costa Rica, even if we were not there physically.”
Finding a Road Back
Many teens have been acknowledging what they have lost before they try to move forward. Some of the students at the Academy of the Sacred Heart did just that as they wrapped up their project. Mary Grace said she had been “super excited” to study abroad until COVID-19 cancelled her plans. Then on top of that, isolation led to other surprises.
“I felt like my social skills declined from not talking to people,” Mary Grace said.
She said Rustic’s Global Issues Design Challenge helped her get back on track in her ability to respond to people on the spot. And it improved her family communication.
“The program gave me a break from the day to day. It opened up my mind, and I began talking to my parents about the issues,” Mary Grace said.
Charlotte added that the global element of the program also helped.
“To talk to people from different places helped my view of the world,” Charlotte said. “It was good to connect virtually with people from Costa Rica, even if we were not there physically.”
As the CDC chart shows above, these family and community connections are vitally important. To help boost communications, parents can enroll their teens in community- and service-focused programs, including both online and in-person options. It’s also worthwhile to embrace programs that allow teens to learn a new skill, such as a new language. For the largest benefits, parents should not underestimate the advantages a teen trip can provide.
Embracing the Brain Benefits of Teen Travel
A couple of years ago Forbes magazine published an article called This is Your Brain on Travel. It discussed how travel can lower the risk of depression and rewire people’s brains to help them handle unfamiliar settings and circumstances.
On top of that, one of the more interesting findings is that just planning and anticipating a trip can improve mental health. A study by the University of Surrey in the United Kingdom found those who had a trip planned were much happier than those who did not.
In addition, the benefits of travel don’t end when you return home. Another study from South Korea found that life satisfaction increased both before and after travel. So planning a trip now will help a teen over an extended period of time.
The benefits of an experience trip is something many Rustic alumni mention. Alumna Linnea Martin says her activity-packed Rustic trips to Peru and Fiji helped her to embrace her “authentic self.”
“The lessons that I learned from the extraordinary travel experiences I had with Rustic truly did help equip me with the confidence and knowledge that I do, in fact, have the ability to handle any obstacle that life throws my way,” Martin said.
Laying The Groundwork for Future Growth
In the bigger picture, these kinds of experiences also do much more than promote short-term happiness or provide a break from the pandemic. They also foster some of the most important skills a teen can learn.
The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) focuses on several areas of personal development that are considered crucial for teens. The organization’s social-emotional learning concepts are utilized in schools across the United States. These ideals go far beyond day-to-day school tasks of memorizing facts, doing math calculations or writing about assigned topics.
Tackling projects that require critical thinking and foster passion helps teens develop social-emotional strength. Design challenges and service-oriented travel programs often make such a difference because they tap into all five of the core SEL concepts:
- Self-awareness: Understanding emotions, thoughts, and values and how they influence behavior.
- Self-management: Managing emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively in different situations to achieve goals and aspirations.
- Social awareness: Understanding the perspectives of others and empathizing with others, including those from diverse backgrounds, cultures, and contexts.
- Relationship skills: Establishing and maintaining healthy and supportive relationships and effectively navigating settings with diverse individuals and groups.
- Responsible decision-making: Making caring and constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions across diverse situations.
These skills have been harder to learn during the pandemic, but there is hope on the horizon as communities are again opening up for visitors and rebuilding what has been lost. This re-opening of travel networks helps not just the teens participating in programs but also the communities they touch.
Fostering community ties is a key element of the Rustic experience. Rustic alumna Isabel Arya, who traveled to Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic and Thailand, says she kept coming back to Rustic for its programs because they taught her to prioritize one of the world’s most important things that COVID-19 threatened – a strong community.
“In our current digital, socially distanced, and disunited world, it can be easy to forget about community and difficult to maintain it,” Arya said. “But if Rustic has taught me anything, it is that community is strong and resilient.”
For more details about Rustic Pathways’ programs, please visit our current program page.