Antisocial: how teenagers’ mental health is affected by social isolation


    Bulgaria’s school buildings closed on 13th of March, with no reopening in sight at least until the autumn. Yet, school went on, with students and teachers studying and teaching from the comfort (for some) or the confines of (for others) of their home. This sudden and unexpected change has taken its toll on the psychological well-being of many a teenager. Read the interview that Elena Zaharieva from the National Trade and Banking High School in Sofia took from psychologist Elena Ilieva on the topic.


    “I need a break,” is a line every student has uttered at least ones. Wise people have said, however that one should be careful what they wish for, because it might come true. In the current situation with the global pandemic and social distancing these words are more relevant than ever. Being social is one of the most important aspects of teenagers’ lives and when it is taken away from them, it might have a detrimental effect on their mentality, which should definitely be taken into account.


    The topic raises many questions and psychologist Elena Ilieva responded to sCOOL Media’s call to answer them. Mrs. Ilieva has more than 25 years of experience gained both in Bulgaria and in South Africa. In 2011, she founded the Bulgarian Institute for Gestalt Therapy. A humanistic therapeutic modality (school of thought) which deals with experience and works with the current “here and now” and focuses on awareness and relating. In the Institute Elena Ilieva is a director and part of the teaching staff for gestalt therapists. In her private practice, she incorporates numerous trainings and years of experience, working with both children and adults who have difficulties with learning, behavior and communication. She specialises in helping clients with traumatic experiences, anxiety, depression and loss. This is what she said about the effect of isolation on teenagers’ lives.


    What influence does social isolation have on teenagers’ mentality since they have suddenly had to break all social contact and stay at home after having had complete freedom all their lives?

    The current global pandemic is affecting everyone’s life dramatically. No one was prepared for this. Regardless of age, we are unable to control and plan our lives as we are used to. For a teenager it is even more difficult, making the situation even harder. With schools closed and events cancelled, many teens are missing important moments of their lives apart from not being able to hang out with friends and gather in groups. It is normal to feel anxious, isolated and disappointed. Anxiety, however, also has a healthy function. It helps us take measures to protect and arrange our lives in a way that supports our well-being, and that of others too. Anxiety is good when it triggers adaptation – as we have to, in this time of social isolation.


    Let us look at the elements of the social isolation one by one:


    “Break all social contacts.” Yes, they may be different now, but how have your social contacts been modified lately? We may be missing physical contact, but we are gaining renewed contact in different ways.


    “Stay at home.” This is a real burden! For teens belonging to a peer group is from great importance and their place in the group carries huge value. During this period, the technologically advanced teens will discover new ways of connecting. They also have time and space to connect with their parents and siblings, learn about family history and maybe even define better their position in the household.


    “Freedom.” This has been lost for now. Under the present conditions, it is helpful to divide the problem into two categories: things I can do something about, and things I can do nothing about. Many things fall in the second category. However, it is important to find out what we can do to formulate needs, wishes and goals that can be fulfilled at this time.


    Is there a danger that technology addiction will increase during social isolation, given that the internet tends to be the main solution to boredom nowadays?

    Yes, there is a danger, but there is also a tendency towards rejecting technology and connecting via different platforms. In a recent survey in Sofia, many high school students said that they wished they could talk for real. Chat writing is taken over by voice calls. In the same way that society is becoming more empathetic and supportive, teens are becoming more courageous, taking the risk of speaking and expressing themselves more directly. To be on screen for schoolwork and then spend the rest of the time surfing the net will be harmful indeed. It is not smart and it amplifies anxiety.


    Focusing on yourself at this time will be a good thing. Research specific topics of interest and have designated times for being online so there is time to feed your senses with different stimulations. Experiment with art forms, some form of physical exercise or anything else of interest that has been on the back burner. Offer to help with maintaining the household.


    It is very important to focus on something other than the constant flow of the news, to shield ourselves from this invasion. Look for distractions that bring you joy, fulfilment and validation. A colleague told me about two high school girls who were looking for a good reason to go out. They posted an offer at their flat’s entrance that they will volunteer to go shopping for residents. A day later they had orders, a good reason to go for a walk and the pleasure of doing something for others. Their gesture was greatly appreciated and they now had a purpose.


    Is there any chance of permanent harm being done to teenagers’ mental health when everything is back to normal and in what way would it present itself?

    Well, this situation is unprecedented! I cannot give a clear yes or no answer. As a psychologist, I can only draw my knowledge and experience of working with traumatised clients and people who have experienced loss. However, the question, as it is put, presents teenagers as powerless creatures to whom harm can be done. This in itself is disempowering and I strongly disagree. Teens are very powerful. Their focus is mainly on the present. Yes, they have dreams, but their planning is short term and this makes them more adaptable to change. They are still adapting to the world of adults. They are not as rigid as their parents are and have not had the time to become as control-driven as some young adults. They are ready to experiment and learn and what makes them different from younger children is that they are able to be responsible for themselves.


    Responsibility as a “response-ability” in any and especially a crisis situation has at least two component.


    Firstly, it is awareness of self. What is going on with me right now? What is it that I am feeling? Here it is important to know that the only way out of a difficult feeling is to live through it. Looking for support from trusted adults or professionals when faced with difficulty is a good way to deal with the situation. Sharing with close friends is just as important since they often feel just the same way.


    Secondly, it is awareness of the surroundings. What is going on around me?  How does this situation serve me and what can I do to change it? When we are “able to respond” we are empowered and become part of the solution rather than being at the receiving end of a problem. In traumatic situations, taking action is often a good way to escape with minimal damage.


    On the other hand, is it possible for this isolation to have a positive impact? If so, what would it be?

    People aspire to happiness in the way that a young child looks forward to a birthday party and cake. After the party, there may be some new toys, but they too will become familiar and uninteresting soon enough. It is in the anticipation and preparing for the party that important things happen. In the same way, learning happens on the way to happiness. When we are happy we want to hold on to the moment for as long as we can, and while we do that nothing else can happen. Learning and enrichment of our experience only happen when we are faced with challenges. We grow most in times of crisis when we need to adapt. This lets us discover our worth and what we are able to do, manage and change.


    And yes, I am sure that there will be huge gains against the background of the restrictions and demands of the current situation. Maybe for some, it will be learning and understanding of self. For others, it can be a better understanding of their own and other people’s boundaries while they are being intensely tested. There will be learning of how am I connecting with others, how am I important for them – trends, family, community. There will probably be more clarity about own needs and priorities. The possibilities are endless, for each teenager.


    In your opinion, when this is all over, what will be the change in teenagers’ way of thinking regarding something as simple as a walk in the park with friends, which they have so far been taking for granted?

    My expectation is that the teens will appear more mature and secure in themselves and their ability to adapt and cope in a crisis. All of us will need to relearn this. My hope is that we, as humanity, will treasure the simplicity of existence, the little joys of life and togetherness.


    Lastly, what difficulties may teenagers have to face when they return to school and to their normal life?

    I assume that it is possible that we all will be creating some new and different ‘normal’ after this crisis. In any case, we are adapting to the current restriction of movement, social distancing etc. We will need a new adaptation when all this is over and it is difficult to foresee. I will stay in the now, do my best and remain open to the experiences of the moment and what it will bring me; be open for new learning about self and others. I wish you curiosity, good creative energy and trust in your ability!


    As Mrs Ilieva stated, it is almost impossible to predict what the situation would be like after the current crisis. One thing is sure, despite the many difficulties we are facing, the humankind and especially teenagers and young people will adapt and come out of this having obtained new skills, mindsets and way of living.


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