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Mental health experts: Grads might have delayed emotional response to rites lost to coronavirus

Holy Family High School Class of 2020 members Natalie Brown, left, and Makayla Salter.
(Photo courtesy of Makayla Salter)
Holy Family High School Class of 2020 members Natalie Brown, left, and Makayla Salter. (Photo courtesy of Makayla Salter)

The class of 2020 did not have a prom, a final semester of sports, theater or music performances, and missed many other time-honored ceremonies and traditions associated with the end of high school.

Given the pressure to complete school courses online and plan for the biggest transition of their lives amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health experts say many young adults may be delaying when they process the stress of missed memories and events.

While many adults have been adjusting to a disrupted lifestyle for the past two months, the emotional impacts on high school seniors could be delayed, which mental health providers at Centura Health said is concerning. Centura Health has partnered with Let’s Talk Colorado to try to reach recent graduates, according to the release.

Let’s Talk aims to help people feel more comfortable seeking mental health services, according to the organization’s website. It was launched by a State Innovation Model grant from the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation with the goal of improving the health of Coloradans by providing access to physical and behavioral health care, according to the site.

“Honestly, I am just trying to get through this year,” said Makayla Salter, a recent Holy Family High School graduate. “None of my friends are talking about it and it really hasn’t hit me yet that I didn’t go to senior prom, have that last meal with my friends or hear the last bell of school. I was really looking forward to playing lacrosse for the first time, but I don’t have time to worry about all of that right now.”

Salter, who was voted Miss Holy Family, was one of the students who on May 21 took part in a highway parade that started north of Broomfield and went down Sheridan Boulevard, through Broomfield County Commons, and headed north again.

Jeff Beaton, Holy Family communications director, said it was good to see everyone’s enthusiasm on what would  have been graduation day. At the end of the parade seniors were able to pick up yearbooks, caps and gowns and cookies.

Ava Johnson is among the Holy Family High School graduates who participated in the May 21, 2020 highway parade.(Photo courtesy of Holy Family High School)

Dr. George Brandt, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Centura Health Porter Adventist Hospital, in the news release stated the type of coping mechanism Salter is using is both “common and concerning.”

“Most young adults don’t have the coping skills yet to process this highly unprecedented school year and may resort to suppressing their grief and anxiety,” Brandt stated. “My concern is that once the school year has officially ended, these feelings may surface in graduates and negatively impact their transition into the next chapter of their life.

“Even though many of the scheduled senior events have passed, parents should look for concerning behavior and expect that anxiety and grief may become more apparent in the coming weeks. I encourage any parent that is concerned about their child’s behavior to reach out to their primary care physician or contact our mental health providers at Centura Health for healthy ways to help their kids cope,” Brandt stated in the release.

He also advised against assuming students can use social media to replace traditional interaction.

“For young adults, social media is a convenient way to communicate but it is not a substitute for personal connection,” Brandt stated. “This generation has a greater reliance on technology, and I encourage parents to be mindful of their kids’ time on social media especially with the social distancing precautions and continued impacts of COVID-19.”

Salter said, “It does not feel like we’ve been out of school for three months now. It’s just crazy to think you don’t get your last prom, graduation and all the little things that go with it. It’s hard to accept.”

To deal with the stress of missing out on her spring semester, Salter has been trying to stay active by hiking with friends who are not self-isolating or quarantining. She also starts conversations with friends by asking how they’re doing and trying to help them through their own stress and grief.

“They’re trying to send us letters and be really sincere about it, but they don’t know what this is like,” Salter said of teachers and school administrators. “Honestly it is our first-hand experience and no one really knows how to react.”

Salter’s usual summer job as an employee at a golf course also is scratched because the course needs less staff amid COVID-19 restrictions. She hopes to find an internship in social work or psychology, which is what she’ll pursue at the University of Kansas in the fall, but she said at this point she “will take anything” that provides a paycheck to help her pay for school.

The university is expected to outline its fall plans to students by June 1, she said, with one option being attending in-person classes through the Thanksgiving break and then doing virtual lessons the rest of the school year.

“I really hope they don’t do that,” said Salter, who wants the freshman campus experience. “I’d really love to go in the fall and spring.”