Therapy, peer support important for teen mental health post-pandemic

(Clockwise) Sierra Lewter, Lexi Shepard,  Jojo Brew and Calix Vu-Bui discuss the impact of social media on IG Live hosted by Urban Health Media Project

Sierra Lewter
Urban Health Media Project

Zoom is not the same as Netflix. After a full year of online school, many tech-savvy students are facing burnout from technology.

Society’s constant demands for achievement did not stop as a result of the pandemic. If anything, students were expected to work harder and produce more, which led to increased rates of stress and anxiety, according to a Boston University survey of over 33,000 college students.

Since social media is a constant companion, Twitter and Instagram are a one-tap-away vacation for some students seeking a break.

But Lexi Shepard is one of those who views these apps as sources not of relaxation, but of added pressure. 

Shepard, a student panelist on a recent Urban Health Media Project “Therapy Thursday’’ event, is featured on Connecting the Dots, an upcoming film about youth mental health. 

The UHMP weekly sessions are discussions on Instagram Live about mental health. They focus on different topics, and often feature a therapist talking with young panelists. The goal is not to provide direct counseling services, but to suggest some tools to promote mental health and healing. 

Panelists agreed that heavy academic and social pressure can take a psychological toll.  

Community engagement seems to be a key to mental health, according to a therapist who joined the discussion.  While talking to a close relative can be helpful, reaching out to someone with more distance from a problem also can help. “Talk to a doctor, your friend, your school, and say, ‘I am going to do what it takes to get support,”’said Calix Vu-Bui, a therapist with telehealth company Amwell. 

Therapy Thursday: Sierra Lewter (top), Davon Harris (left) and Dr. Joe Carr (right) discuss the benefits of exercise and sports on mental health.

Students also need to be able to break out of society’s typical standard of success, she said: ”It’s okay to be revolutionary as a young person and set boundaries. But, she added, “Balance is important. Make sure you carve out space to be a human and slow down.”

Consider the case of Jojo Brew of Washington, D.C., a 18-year-old rising college freshman who joined the discussion. After struggling unsuccessfully to open up to his mother about problems in his personal life, he sought therapy. But he admitted that it was hard at first to be vulnerable to a stranger, and that it took time to become comfortable with the process.

Therapy can seem hard to access, Vu-Bui acknowledged. But she stressed the need to advocate for yourself in order to find the help you need. It’s important, she said, to find a therapist “who can really see you.’’ Oftentimes, she added, success comes only after a series of trials and errors. The key is to make sure you are heard and understood.

Healing also should take place outside the therapy chair. Dr. Joe Carr, who participated in another Therapy Thursday session, is a sports psychologist who works with an extensive list of professional athletes,  including NBA superstars like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony. He is the CEO of OneHealth. 

He often gives them exercises for relaxing off court that also can be useful for all ages. He recommends meditation;  journaling, dancing, drawing and listening to music.  Music allows you to get outside of yourself and get into what Carr calls “mental traveling.”

He said peer support is crucial:  Be observant of your friends and watch out for signs of isolation or talk of depression or suicide. “Having someone to talk to and having that exchange with someone is a real form of release,” Carr explained. 

Even a simple text can also  go a long way: “When people hear that someone cares about them,’’ he said, “there’s a lot that can happen from that.” 

Sierra Lewter is a rising senior at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts and a former high school student and college intern with the Urban Health Media Project.

Every Thursday at 7 pm EST., UHMP hosts 'Therapy Thursday' live show on Instagram to discuss mental health topics. Stay tuned!