"Whatever it takes, I'll do."
Students across the Bay Area will soon do something many have not done in nearly a year and a half: go to school. Some are glad to be returning to school, as the prolonged isolation was causing increased frustration, anxiety, and depression. “With parents working, youth have had too much screen time and video games, with limited in-person stimulation,” says Hilda Leon, Community Counseling Clinician. YouThrive Program Supervisor Vernon Pope-Banks reports that many of the youth in his early intervention groups are enthusiastic about returning to school.

However, for others, returning to in-person instruction is causing significant anxiety. Side by Side is there to listen to those fears and offer support.
According to Jasmine Cervantes, Educational Youth Advocate for Side by Side’s Our Space LGBTQIA+ program, the primary anxiety surrounding returning to school is about getting sick. “With the Delta variant surge, youth are not feeling safe about going back to school.” With many peers not following safety guidelines or choosing not to be vaccinated, the anxiety over getting sick, especially for unvaccinated youth, is very real.
Nervousness surrounding their academic performance is also prevalent. Cervantes says her clients worry that they will be distracted from paying attention to their schoolwork by their fear of getting exposed to the virus. Leon says that for the most part, her younger clients have low motivation to return to in-person instruction. “Their anxiety about going back to school is made worse by uncertainty about whether they will eventually be forced to go back to virtual learning again.”

Finally, many youth are apprehensive about social interactions. Leon describes clients “worrying about making friends and being liked by their classmates.” According to Cervantes, social anxiety is a huge concern for her clients as well. “Youth are going from seeing no people in person to seeing a lot of people. They feel their ‘social battery’ is going to die within two hours. Even youth who do not typically have social anxiety are overwhelmed at the idea of large crowds. One youth said that when her extended family got together recently after a long time apart, the exhaustion over being around so many people meant she had to retreat for the next two days.”

What can Side by Side do to help these youth?
Leon uses visualization to help her clients acknowledge, validate, and normalize their feelings. “I help them visualize what their first day of school might look like. We walk through their morning routine step by step. I acknowledge their experience and emotions, and I tell them their feelings are normal. I encourage them to think positive thoughts. The first few days or weeks will be an adjustment, but I will be here to support them every step of the way.”
Pope-Banks helps YouThrive youth to release negative emotions through a technique he calls Relate, Release, Relax. “First, youth need to relate to the situation, then release any negative energy they are holding about that situation. Once they have released, they can relax. And when they relax, anxiety is diminished.”

To lessen feelings of overwhelm, Cervantes counsels her youth to plan something to look forward to after arriving home from school, whether it’s a game, or attending a group, or taking a nap. “I really encourage them to rest and take a mental break before proceeding with chores, homework, or other responsibilities.”

Cervantes is planning to change her support groups to be focused for now on anxiety relief. She also helps her clients by being a constant source of support. “I tell my youth, if it ever gets to be too much, they can reach out to me. Whatever it takes, I’ll do.”