Teens Reach Out to Peers to Share Pandemic Concerns: Loss, Isolation, Depression – and Reports of Child Abuse

Struggling teens are reaching out to the non-profit Teen Line during the pandemic crisis to share feelings of loss, depression and loneliness with other teens. Teen Line helps to prevent crises by providing a safe space to talk about difficult issues through peer-to-peer support and education.

Teen Line volunteer Max, 18, has noticed a difference in the texts he is seeing during the pandemic.

“Usually we get a pretty even split between acute crisis and callers who are isolated and lonely, with no other outlet to express their feelings,” he said. “Since the COVID lockdown, a vast majority of Teen Line texts have come from teens with no outlets to express their emotions, and as such their troubles just build up day in and day out until they finally can’t handle them alone anymore.”

The lockdown has kept teens from being able to express and regulate their emotions in a healthy way, either due to not seeing friends as much or due to the constant stress and pressure, Max added.

Another Teen Line volunteer, Chelsea, 17, says Teen Line conversations create a sense of community.

“Conversing with teens at Teen Line every week who may live thousands of miles from you but also live the same life and have the same struggles and stresses can really help to create a sense of community and certainly makes us all feel less alone in the pandemic,” she said.

For 40 years, Teen Line has operated a daily hotline, taking calls, texts and emails from teens worldwide. Since mid-March, after their Los Angeles-based hotline room shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Teen Line volunteers have been responding remotely to teens who contact them via email and text message. (During the pandemic, Teen Line partner Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services receives Teen Line’s phone calls.)

“Loneliness and depression have been major concerns for teens while they are stuck at home with their parents,” said Teen Line volunteer Anusha, 18. “These are not necessarily new concerns, but at this pandemic time they have less of a support system, being away from their friends and trusted adults at school.”

Another Teen Line volunteer, Joey, 17, has his own concerns about whether he will go off to college this fall as planned. Despite that, Joey says that he and other Teen Line volunteers find purpose in making a difference in the lives of other teens who reach out for help.

“Teens are struggling right now,” Joey said. “They are missing their day-to-day life, there’s more anxiety and stress now. We are here to listen to their concerns and let them know they are not alone. We help them find resources to cope.”

Dramatic Increase in Reports of Child Abuse

Teen Line reports that incoming email messages increased 68 percent between mid-March and the first week of May as compared to the same time period in 2019. Text messages to Teen Line increased by 9 percent.

Child abuse reports to Teen Line are up 166 percent, according to Executive Director Michelle Carlson.

“That increase is alarming,” Carlson said. “And yet we recognize that people are not used to spending 24/7 together at home. Stress is high for everyone, and any unhealthy family dynamics are exacerbated. At the same time, the pandemic makes it more difficult for abused youth to easily retreat to a safe space and access formal support systems.”

Among other significant increases during this pandemic time, contacts regarding loneliness are up 35 percent and self-injury concerns are up 24 percent over the same period last year.

According to Carlson, teens are disappointed by missing social time with their friends as well as time with grandparents and end-of-the-school-year festivities such as prom, sports and graduation. Summer vacations and plans for summer camp may be cancelled.

“Parents may inadvertently invalidate that disappointment, which can add to a teen’s feelings of frustration and sadness,” she said. “Youth get the validation they need by talking to one of our teen volunteers because they feel our volunteers ‘get it.’”

Carlson continued, “Teen Line is about listening, validating, holding a hand. Our teen volunteers don’t have to have all the answers, but they do offer empathy.”

Extensive Training

Following an application and interview process, each class of Teen Line volunteers completes an extensive 65-hour training program led by Training Director Jenny Pascal.

“We focus on learning active listening skills to validate other teens’ concerns. The teen volunteers also work on their skills in communications and how to express empathy

without judgment,” Pascal said. “The goal is to validate the concern and point to resources to help the other teen cope.”

She added, “Our teen volunteers tend to be high achievers who are committed to community service. Many of them look ahead to careers in some area of mental health.”

While Teen Line contacts are counted for statistical purposes, individual concerns and comments are kept confidential. Teen Line volunteers receive oversight from adult volunteers who are mental health professionals.

More than 21,000 teens were served during calendar 2019. Sixty-nine percent of contacts in 2019 came from teens between the ages of 14 and 17. Some 17 percent of last year’s contacts came from youth age 13 and younger.

Statistics representing the origin of contacts show that 27 percent come from around California and 73 percent come from elsewhere in the United States or internationally.

Outreach and Education Continue

While many Teen Line teen volunteers learned about the program from family members or friends who had been volunteers themselves, other teens learn of the volunteer opportunity through outreach presentations held at local schools.

Grant, 18, was in middle school when he heard about Teen Line. He called the hotline to talk about a crush on another boy at school when he had not yet come out as gay. He recalls feeling safe and supported as he shared his concerns.

Grant made a subsequent call to Teen Line as he was experiencing depression. “I didn’t want to burden my parents, but the Teen Line volunteer talked to me about talking to them and eventually my parents helped me get the therapy that I needed,” he said.

Three years ago, Grant called the hotline again, this time to inquire about volunteer opportunities. “I felt that I was on track, and I wanted to make sense of my experience and be of help to other teens who were struggling.”

Earlier this year, Grant was among the teen volunteers visiting local schools, sharing his story and encouraging students to contact Teen Line with any concerns they may have.

Outreach visits to schools and youth groups grew 64 percent in 2019 is continuing during the pandemic months, with Teen Line making presentations via Zoom. Thousands of Teen Line pocket-size cards have been distributed through school-based food distribution centers.

Philanthropic Support

As a nonprofit organization, Teen Line depends on the generosity of supporters to continue to fulfill their mission to support troubled teens. Nearly 90 percent of Teen Line’s annual revenue comes from individuals who make donations, offer memorial contributions and participate in various fundraising events throughout the year.

Teens interested in reaching out to Teen Line may do so in the following ways:

  • Text TEEN to 839863 nightly between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. Pacific Time.
  • Send an email through the email button available on the website, www.teenlineonline.org. Note that due to the volume of emails received, responses may require several days’ time.
  • Call 310-855-4673 or 800-TLC-TEEN to speak with an adult mental health professional. During this pandemic time, Teen Line phone calls are being handled by Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services in LosAngeles.

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