Jefferson Academy senior’s essay raises awareness on pandemic’s impact on mental health

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When a Jefferson Academy English Composition 1 class was assigned to write a paper on cause and effect, students came up with a variety of ideas, from politics to serial killers.

But Maya Magallanes was drawn to an experience she recently had when a Jefferson Academy middle schooler asked her where the nurse’s office was. When she asked him what was wrong, he told her he was having a panic attack because a substitute teacher was forcing students to wear masks in class, which was giving him extreme anxiety.

“It was just eye-opening,” Magallanes said of the experience. “I really struggled last year with online school, it kind of made me realize it was really hard on everyone in school. We’re back in school and people are still struggling from the experience they had last year.”

Magallanes decided to write about the effects on student mental health caused by the pandemic. She wrote about the grief she felt walking the student to the nurse’s office and how COVID-19 isn’t the only thing people have to fear as part of the pandemic. She cited Children’s Hospital Colorado’s public health state of emergency surrounding children’s mental health.

“Many people’s first thought is fear that we are not doing enough to stop the pandemic. The hospital beds are full. However, they aren’t full of COVD cases, they’re full of mental health disorders and suicide attempts due to the pandemic,” her essay reads, citing Children’s Hospital Colorado. “Mental health is just as important as physical health and when adolescents’ mental health is damaged it starts to show physically, landing many in hospitals.”

A study conducted by the Centers of Disease Control showed that one in four 18- to 24-year-olds said they’ve thought about self harm during the pandemic, and more than half reported at least one negative mental health symptom.

As part of the assignment, everyone in Magallanes’ class read her paper to provide feedback.

“Just from what happened last year and coming into this year we all have this shared experience, it’s been hard on everyone,” she said. “Getting that perspective, all of my classmates could relate to the mental health piece.”

Without her realizing it, Magallanes’ essay raised awareness surrounding mental health. Her classmates and parents encouraged her to share the essay with Jefferson Academy’s Board of Directors.

When the school’s Executive Director Tim Matlick read the essay, he said he was impressed by how well-written and balanced it was.

“Part of it is the balance that understands that the pandemic is real and there are things we have to do, but the other piece is the mental health side. It’s become an issue in schools across the nation at all levels,” he said. “Her ability to point out that we’re really dealing with this on multiple fronts and also to point out that people are so passionate about their positions, she did not engage in any of those conversations that would distract from her point.”

Matlick said it’s important for staff members, teachers and parents to understand everyone is under a lot of pressure.

“To quote the elementary Jefferson Academy principal, no one’s really at their best as we work through this,” he said. “Understanding everybody we’re working with or dealing with is under pressure and we just need to provide grace with everybody really resonates.”

In her essay, Magallanes writes the pandemic itself has taken much of the spotlight away from its’ impacts on mental health. She wrote the evidence of an increase in self harm and negative mental health is devastating, and “shows that even if the virus were to magically disappear, Gen Z will still be suffering the effects.”

The essay concludes with the natural question, “what now?” Magallanes acknowledged there is no simple solution and many people have different ideas.

“However, even people with opposing viewpoints can find common ground on the importance of going to in-person school,” she wrote, later adding, “the changes, and a focus on mental health this school year, have made a world of difference for me and many others.

“The more people, schools and organizations acknowledging the damage that has been done, the sooner we can make strides to help health the youth of our nation.”

For Magallanes, continuing the conversation around mental health will increase the available resources.