Companionship is key to overcoming mental health issues in the pandemic March 26, 2021 — by Cici Xu Photo courtesy of TeachFX Permalink “Hey, it’s been half a year. How’s life?” asked a friend as he popped into my Zoom room, ready to review for our upcoming AP Chemistry test. Staring at the screen, I felt an odd sense of normalcy as I once again felt connected with another person, like in pre-pandemic times. When surveys from teachers asked me what I missed the most from in-person learning, I always put not being able to study with my friends. When online learning began, I had no idea that eliminating this seemingly casual activity from my daily life would hurt my mental health. Though I paid close attention to the Wednesday wellness modules, I still did not know how to cope with my declining mental health and could hardly concentrate on schoolwork during the last weeks of first semester. Gradually, I began to have mental breakdowns from even small things like internet glitches every week. As I cried behind closed doors, those moments in isolation triggered a strong desire for companionship and socialization — a source of happiness that neither online modules nor counseling could provide. Last March, I thought I was freed from the pressure of daily socialization. For the first time in high school, I thought I could take off the facade of happiness I always wore around my friends. But as time passed, I realized that without my friends, who helped me try to be happy and in-tune with the people around me, I stopped even trying to find joy and focused purely on schoolwork and exams. I know that I am not alone. Two of my friends have also reached out to me, sharing similar thoughts about the extreme loneliness they have experienced lately. A recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention indicated 63 percent of young people reported experiencing some degree of anxiety and depression in the past year. Several weeks ago, some friends and I decided to form a study group and call each other weekly to check in and take a break from our intense second semester junior lives. We also decided to go on hikes while wearing masks and social distancing. What a difference this small change has made! Our conversations have always made my days since. I have realized how much simple, ordinary socializing can combat mental health issues caused by loneliness. Though I struggled with more minor symptoms, finding ways to interact with friends is a universal solution to combat anxiety and depression because peers can empower and care for each other — support systems that students who reported experiencing loneliness lack, according to an article published by the Harvard Gazette. Clubs can also host more interactive discussion meetings where students can chime in to discuss a subject. For example, the Aspiring to Create English club hosts monthly discussion sessions and Zoom panels where many non-member students also tune in simply to interact with peers. For their part, teachers can help students cope with mental health struggles by teaching them how to be active listeners and encouraging more group projects so students have to communicate with each other outside of class. Though meeting over Zoom is not ideal, and not everyone is always familiar with the people in their group, group work gives lonely students much-needed attention as members of the group all work together toward the same goal, restoring a sense of community. I remembered nights when I stayed up until 2 a.m. with my APUSH group on a Messenger call, scrambling to piece our 10-page comic book together to meet the 8:30 a.m. deadline. Even though group work can be stressful, coordinating with peers on when to meet, sharing 20 pages of research and editing write-ups on the same Google Doc formed a bond between my group members and me. Without it, we would have never met outside of school or found ways to know each other better like friends. From my experiences, I learned that I should embrace social interactions because their absence creates far more obstacles in my life than a few moments of awkwardness when first starting a conversation or texting friends to find out if they have time to meet. As I connect more with others, I no longer feel as anxious as before, but rather empowered by those conversations with peers. These social bonds interconnected our community with strength and unity while collectively guiding people to find joyful sparks in their lives.