CHICAGO — New research indicates that another side effect of the pandemic is a growing epidemic of loneliness. The stress of living through a screen and being isolated from peers is hitting young people especially hard.
“I had been the person that my friends go and talk to when they’re like, 'Something's on my mind' or 'Something's happening,'” said 17-year-old high school senior Mia Hutchinson.
For the last three years, Hutchinson has used her gift of listening to counsel her peers.
“I did like six months where I just wrote emails and then over the next two-and-a-half years, I've just been on texts and calls,” she said.
She is one of about 100 volunteers for Teen Line, a peer-to-peer hotline that started more than four decades ago.
“Teen Line was started in 1980 by a group of mental health professionals who realized that when teens were struggling, they turned more readily to their peers than they did to the adults in their lives,” explained Cheryl Eskin, program director for Teen Line.
Before the pandemic, each night, trained young people would come together in a physical hotline rail.
“On a typical night, we usually have about 10 teens and they're supervised by three to four adult mental health professionals,” said Eskin.
Amid the pandemic, their work is continuing, but it's now done completely remotely.
“The callers that I've been getting, just feeling like they're all alone like they have no one to talk to because they're just not able to see anybody in real life,” said Hutchinson.
A new report from Harvard University suggests that 36 percent of Americans are experiencing “serious loneliness” during the pandemic. This included 61 percent of young people aged 18-25.
About half of lonely young adults in the survey reported that no one in the past few weeks had “taken more than just a few minutes” to ask how they are doing in a way that made them feel like the person “genuinely cared.”
“Loneliness, we've seen, increases in depression and suicide, in anxiety and just an overall kind of despair and a lot of ways,” said Eskin.
Even more alarming--according to the CDC, mental health-related ER visits by 12 to 17-year-olds spiked 31 percent in 2020 compared to the same time last year.
“My last couple of shifts, I've had only suicide calls and active suicide calls,” said Hutchinson. “It’s kind of just showing that people are really starting to not be able to handle the whole situation of the pandemic anymore.”
It’s easy to forget that Hutchinson is only 17.
“If it's really, really bad, I'll just like take a break like for five minutes,” she said.
Ask her how she’s doing, and she’ll tell you she leans on her fellow listeners as well.
“I usually am able to get my support just from the other people who are in the Zoom room, which is just so lovely that I can have that immediate help with me at all times," she said.
She’s just one of the dozens of teens supporting other teens in tough times.