As need for support grows, youth services organizations adapt

Teens are experiencing higher levels of anxiety and depression, organizers say

Students attend a fall backpacking trip through the Buddy Program’s LEAD (Leadership through Exploration, Action and Discovery) high school outdoor leadership program. To abide by COVID-19 safety guidelines, the program purchased single-person tents, served individually-wrapped meals and followed mask and social distancing protocols.
The Buddy Program/Courtesy Image

When COVID-19 brought life to a grinding halt in March, youth throughout the Roaring Fork Valley were left in the lurch.

One after another, the hallmarks of being a teenager slipped away. Proms were canceled. Graduations came and went (from a distance). Spring sports were scrapped, fall athletics modified to meet COVID-19 guidelines: there would be no homecoming bashes, no senior night celebrations on the field.

It takes a toll, said Paula Hall, an Aspen Hope Center crisis clinician who works with students at Roaring Fork High School in Carbondale.

“All the things that are major milestones and markers in adolescent life, they’re missing,” Hall said. “For a lot of kids, the reason they go to school is social (interactions) and extracurriculars, and that’s what keeps them engaged — and it’s gone.”

It isn’t just school that’s a problem, she said. Isolation from friends, financial stress, anxiety about the virus itself — all have weighed on students this year.

“What we thought at first was, not being in school was really damaging these kids. Since we’ve been in school, it is not better,” Hall said. COVID-19 “has just changed everything.”

As a licensed counselor, Hall takes on “more severe cases” of students in distress: those struggling with recurring anxiety or depression, rather than those in a momentary state of upset.

In 2020, she has worked with at least twice the number of students that she might in a normal year.

Hall said she’s seen nearly 30% of the student population at the school this year; typically, she sees closer to 10%-15%. Students who previously had no mental health issues are now experiencing low levels of anxiety and depression; those who previously had low levels of anxiety and depression have felt those emotions amplified this year.

“This is a traumatic experience for students, and teachers don’t know what to do. Students don’t know what to do, really, because none of us have lived through a pandemic. Nobody has,” Hall said. “It’s completely new for all of us.”

Hall takes a “practical, solution-based” approach to treatment, this year as much as any other, with an emphasis on sleep, self-expression and relaxation exercises. (Sleep is particularly important, Hall said: a lack of it exacerbates anxiety and depression, and anxiety and depression can disrupt sleep, creating a negative feedback loop.)

But the unknowns of COVID-19 and health restrictions that mitigate the spread of the virus have required her to adapt: she offers online sessions, makes home visits and hasn’t taken the usual holiday breaks that would come with a typical school year.

Hall is just one of many counselors, mentors and organizers in the Roaring Fork Valley that have shifted programming to continue to provide youth services to kids and young adults in need of support. She isn’t the only one who has seen a significant need for that support.

Workers install a YouthZone banner in downtown Aspen. The organization is among youth services providers adapting to the needs of local kids and young adults.
YouthZone/Courtesy Image

YouthZone saw a dip in referrals to its programs when schools shut down in March, according to the Aspen-based nonprofit’s assistant director Keith Berglund. The organization relies on teachers, school resource officers, law enforcement and the court system to identify at-risk youth in need of support and guidance through prevention, intervention and restorative justice.

“That was a challenge for YouthZone,” Berglund said. Online school and some courts closed meant less boots on the ground and fewer intakes at YouthZone. But the need for the organization’s resources didn’t decrease accordingly.

“Even though we were getting less referrals, fewer new clients, the clients we were getting had higher levels of need — there was higher risk,” Berglund said. COVID-19 added new strains to many families who were in the “caution zone” before the pandemic began, he said; it created an environment where there was more stress, sometimes more violence, than there would be under normal circumstances.

To meet those needs, YouthZone implemented virtual meetings over platforms like Zoom and WebEx. The restorative justice component of the program, which relies heavily on in-person interaction and community service, has been less active this year amid COVID-19 precautions and restrictions.

But as helpful as online, live-from-home support can be, it isn’t a perfect solution — especially for youth who are already working through challenges at home. The pandemic is forcing

“If a family doesn’t have an internet connection, doesn’t have the technology in their home to be a part of Zoom, they’re already probably struggling with school,” Berglund said. ” I don’t think anybody here at YouthZone would say that a Zoom meeting is anywhere near as effective as in- person (meetings).”

Berglund also worries about students who are slipping through the cracks amid pandemic-related modifications — the ones who seem fine on Zoom but may be struggling off-screen with other stressors in home or family life. A teacher or school resource officer might be able to spot those students through daily, face-to-face interaction; less so in an online classroom or hybrid learning model.

“These higher-risk kids, these kids that are needing more services, I think we are getting them what they need,” Berglund said. “The question mark, though, is where are the medium-risk or the low-risk kids that normally might be coming here because there’s more interaction with schools, teachers, coaches?”

“I worry about them, we all worry about them, sort of collectively — we hope that they’re safe and they’re getting the services they need,” Berglund said. “But we’re doing the best we can, and I’m actually really proud of the work that we’re doing despite the difficulties of the pandemic.”

Like Hall at the Aspen Hope Center, Berglund said that YouthZone has seen more young people experiencing anxiety in 2020. Though sometimes related to the virus itself, but it’s more often tied to the tangential stressors that stem from the “new normal” of pandemic life: parents facing reduced hours or job loss, extended periods of time spent with a limited number of people, a lack of work, sports and extracurriculars.

Big Buddy Meg Ravenscraft and her Little Buddy Sonia (paired since October 2017) play Battleship through a video call. The Buddy Program pivoted to outdoor and virtual activities this year amid COVID-19 restrictions.
The Buddy Program/Courtesy Image

Isolation has had its impact on valley youth, said Meg Ravenscraft, a LEAD (Leadership through Exploration, Action, and Discovery) program coordinator with The Buddy Program. Ravenscraft works with high-school aged youth at Basalt- and Carbondale-area high schools through group mentorship and outdoor leadership courses in partnership with Colorado Mountain College.

One participant in a September trip told Ravenscraft it was the first time she had spent time with people outside of her household since March. During outdoor experiences, Ravescraft said she saw students “being joyous and laughing, and saying that they didn’t want to go home at the end because they hadn’t been in the company of so many other kids their age in quite a while.”

COVID-19 has limited the number of students that the LEAD program can accommodate on outdoor experiences. The organization made modifications to trips to follow safety guidelines (think smaller groups, single-person tents, individually-wrapped meals and mask and social distancing protocols); to maintain the same number of program hours, some offerings are online, others socially-distanced.

But the changes to programming this year haven’t made valley youth any less interested in participating. Ravenscraft said she was “blown away” by the interest in summer offerings; students have been eager to participate in social and emotional check-ins, too.

“I think that was due to the youth in the valley craving that intrinsic connection,” she said.

“It surprises me in some ways because we think online isn’t going to be as engaging as in-person, in some ways, but then you hear from the kids, and they’re just happy to check in with each other.”

Ravenscraft also hopes that the Buddy Program has helped more youth learn about the free outdoor opportunities that are available to them, uninhibited by the financial burdens that weigh on many families — especially in a challenging year like 2020.

“They can then go and share those experiences with their families and their friends that are safely in their COVID cohort,” she said. “That’s what, this year, really brings me joy.”

Ravenscraft is also a volunteer “Big Buddy” mentor with the organization. She said compromise, consent and communication have guided the time she spends with her Little Buddy, Sonia as they keep COVID-19 safety in mind.

This year, activities have been centered on virtual and outdoor experiences — not elaborate, perhaps, but nonetheless worthwhile amid so much distance and isolation.

“We’re still connected, and I’ve been surprised,” Ravenscraft said. “This year in itself, the connection is all that more valuable.”