For many teens, growing up means grappling with a triple threat: the lingering pandemic, suffocating social expectations, and a world often marred by violence and economic hardship. The result? A generation struggling to breathe under the weight of mental health challenges.
Seventeen-year-old Joshua Scotland is a junior at Northeast High School and says being a teen today comes with its own problems, and that most of his peers don’t feel comfortable talking about their issues to others.
“We just want to stay to ourselves and not really share anything, we just want to be alone, that’s really what is happening to our generation,” said Scotland.
He says a lot of issues teens face while living in Philadelphia can be more stressful than their counterparts who live outside of the city.
Seeing friends lose their life to gun violence, suffer in poverty, or face struggles at home can all contribute to their mental health suffering.
Scotland shared, “A lot of things can affect your mental health. School, work, especially at home, a lot of kids go through things at home,” which he says can have a negative impact at school.
“They come to school, and it messes with their whole emotion, your mood.”
The School District of Philadelphia is working to change that. They introduced a new online multi-platform tool called Kooth, which offers students in the district free mental health resources — including counseling, journaling, and a message board for students to communicate with each other anonymously about their mental health challenges.
Dr. Jayme Banks, the school district’s deputy chief of prevention, intervention, and trauma, says it’s working.
“They can do this with a whole lot of privacy. The whole world doesn’t have to see them go into the counselor’s office,” he said.
The numbers don’t lie: After the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released a report showing how students were impacted mentally by the pandemic. The results revealed high school students were under more mental threats than their previous counterparts.
According to the data in 2021, more than one-third of high school students reported they experienced poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic, and 44% reported they persistently felt sad or hopeless during the past year.
Banks shares it’s more common that you think.
“Rebounding from COVID things pile on top of each other. It’s not just one issue, it’s a multitude of issues that affect our family.”
She says just some of the feelings they face daily can be overwhelming, including “anxiety, feelings of depression, feelings of anger because of all that has gone on.”
The analyses prove some of the severe challenges youth encountered and continue to face after the pandemic.
Which is why the school district hoped an incentive to get its students active on Kooth over the summer would help them improve mentally and continue into the rest of the school year.
It worked; the summer wellness challenge brought thousands of students across the district onto the app. The district offered the school with the highest number of users a chance to meet Kooth ambassador and Philadelphia Eagles player Lane Johnson.
On November 28, Johnson surprised Scotland and several hundred of his classmates at a pep rally at Northeast High School after they won the challenge where Johnson opened up about his own mental health struggles.
“You feel like you’re the only person maybe going through this stuff,” Johnson said, and assured them they were not alone.
“What I realized is, a lot of my teammates, a lot of my friends, were going through the same troubles that I was.”
Johnson was the first player in the league to take a leave of absence from the season due to mental health challenges, and has joined Kooth to bring more awareness and support around mental health to young people in Philadelphia and across Pennsylvania.
“My coach always said no man is an island, you draw your strength from others,” said Johnson.
Scotland says seeing Johnson and the support from the district has inspired him and others to also be more open about their mental health challenges and continue to put their mental health first.
Scotland shared this message with fellow classmates: “I understand there are certain days you want to give up, you feel lazy, tired but you can’t really give up.”
The district says Kooth will be available to all students within the district for free and encourages students to sign up and take advantage of the mental health resources.