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What is my future? How Michigan teens and young adults deal with isolation

Even as overall COVID-19 cases in Michigan continue to decline, the toll of the virus on the mental health of a young generation is just beginning to emerge.

In Detroit, a 17-year-old caller to a mental health hotline was overwhelmed by what the virus had done to his high school life. He hinted suicide may be a way out.

“He was feeling like there is no hope,” recalled Daicia Price, a consultant for a Detroit mental health agency, who took that call in late May.

“He was saying, ‘What is the point of continuing to work? I feel like it’s not going to matter. I don’t feel like life is worth living.’”

In the course of that 45-minute call, Price reassured him there are many good reasons to live. She suggested resources for help. By the end, he indicated he would be alright.

In suburban Grand Rapids, a school mental health worker grew increasingly concerned about a high school student while conducting remote counseling sessions.

COVID-19 and the young

A national survey of more than 3,000 high school and college students and coronavirus found:

  • 87 percent reported stress or anxiety
  • 57 percent said their mental health had “worsened”
  • 18 percent said their mental had “significantly worsened”
  • 78 percent reported sadness or disappointment
  • 42 percent reported loneliness
  • 42 percent reported financial setbacks

Source: Active Minds

“He was showing lots of signs of depression,” Stephanie Thornton, a social worker at Forest Hills Public Schools told Bridge.

“Not seeing the point of being around, not getting dressed all day, kind of a deep sadness.”

She recommended to his parents that he get therapy. Two days later, the parents told him their son had been hospitalized at a mental health treatment center.

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Detroit Free Press, Bridge Magazine and Michigan Radio are teaming up to report on Michigan hospitals during the coronavirus pandemic. If you work in a Michigan hospital, we would love to hear from you. You can contact Kristen Jordan Shamus, Robin Erb at or Kate Wells at at Michigan Radio. 

Experts and mental health advocates agree that the coronavirus outbreak, with its extended quarantine and disruption to daily routines, is likely to trigger a wave of mental health issues across a broad spectrum of the population, from stressed-out health care workers and bus drivers to jobless householders fearful for their economic future.

But Michigan high school and college students face a unique set of mental health tripwires tied to the pandemic. Their daily school lives and personal contact with peers abruptly ended in March, as schools switched to virtual classes. Some lost graduation ceremonies or other rites of spring, from proms to sports or club events. Add to that an uncertain future for many young people as the state’s economy tanked.  

Isolated at home, for many it became a time of mourning.

Indeed, a national survey in April of more than 3,000 high school and college students found that 75 percent reported COVID-19 had worsened their mental health, with 87 percent experiencing stress or anxiety and 78 percent sadness or disappointment. Nearly half of college students reported financial setbacks tied to coronavirus.

Adding to the challenge is a state system with huge gaps in treatment. A report last year estimated that roughly 670,000 people with mental illness in Michigan do not receive help. 

“I think the impact of this on young people is huge,” said Kevin Fischer, executive director for the Michigan chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“I think the impact of this is going to be more long term than people realize.”

Fischer said that’s especially true for young people in southeast Michigan, the region hit hardest by the virus ─ on top of a range of factors tied to poverty that put them at greater risk for mental health problems.

The virus ravaged black households in Detroit, whose population is nearly 80 percent African American. With just 7 percent of the state’s population, the city accounts for about a quarter of Michigan’s COVID-19 death total.

“If you are a young person living in Detroit, you are far more likely to know someone who has been sick, someone who has been hospitalized, someone who has died,” said Dr. Elizabeth Koschmann, a research investigator with the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Michigan. Koschmann directs a program at U-M that trains school professionals in evidence-based mental health therapy and self-guided mental health practices for students.


“That creates both a traumatic experience for these people, a sense of grief but also an ever-present sense of fear.”

More than half of Detroit children ages 12 to 17 live in poverty. That makes it more likely they are exposed to  adverse childhood experiences tied to poor physical and mental health outcomes like depression and substance abuse.

“There was already a massive lack of equity between Detroit and other parts of the state of Michigan,” Koschmann said. “I think the virus is shining a light on a problem that has been there for a long, long time. There is tremendous mental health risk for the teen and young adult population in Detroit.”

Responding to those needs, a Detroit collaborative recently launched a free mental health support service aimed at Wayne County adolescents and young adults with mental health issues tied to COVID-19. That’s how the troubled 17-year-old Detroiter connected with consultant Price, a clinical assistant professor of social work at the University of Michigan.

“We’ve never experienced this before,” said Andrea Cole, executive director and CEO of the Ethel and James Flinn Foundation, a Detroit-based foundation that supports mental health initiatives.

“This is a trying time for all of us, but especially for young people who may already be struggling with mental health issues such as anxiety, depression, suicidal thoughts, hopelessness or substance use disorder.”

Backed by $500,000 in funding from the Michigan Health Endowment Fund, the Flinn Foundation, the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan and the Skillman Foundation, among others, the project provides 24-hour access to a mental-health support line – 313-488-HOPE – and links to other resources. [Disclosure: Flinn and the Community Foundation are funders of The Center for Michigan, Bridge’s parent organization]


Cole noted that the state of Michigan provides some mental health support tied to COVID-19, including a website with self-guided exercises for maintaining mental health, links to suicide hotlines and a support line that connects callers to mental health peers.

But Cole said this project takes that support a significant step forward for Detroit-area young people.

Callers can receive up to 12 therapy sessions – regardless of whether they have health insurance or not – via phone, tablet or computer. The counselors provide initial mental health screenings, treatment and referral to other resources.

“This is therapy. We are providing professional counselors. It’s not that quick crisis call,” she said.

In Grand Rapids, a mental health official reports that many young West Michigan adults are reaching out to an outpatient urgent care mental health center for help tied to the coronavirus crisis.

“They are displaying the things you would expect: depression, anxiety, some certainly related to COVID-19,” said Megan Zambiasi, senior director of clinical services for Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services, a Kent County-based treatment agency.

“It’s about the loss of a job opportunity or internships they normally would have had that are not there now, and also a lot of uncertainty about their future.”

“Isolation is also a factor. For a lot of the people who are depressed or anxious, isolation makes it worse for them.”

Zambiasi expects the ripple effects of COVID-19 on mental health in this population group to linger for years.

“For the early emerging adults who are launching [their adult lives, it’s harder to do that if you are launching into a recession. We anticipate over the next couple years we will see more people with mental health and substance use issues.”

Meanwhile, an anxiety-prone senior at Forest Hills Public Schools confided to a counselor that closing down classes had kicked that state of mind into overdrive.

“All the uncertainty really increased her anxiety,” Mattie DeBoe, a contract therapist for the district, told Bridge.

“She couldn’t eat. She worried, ‘Am I still going to be accepted into college if I can’t complete my assignments?’ She couldn’t sleep, because her thoughts were just racing and racing and racing through her head.”

DeBoe said she connected the student to another therapist, who helped her learn to manage her feelings.

But the student had to make peace with the bittersweet end to her senior year: “She really had to let that go and accept that it’s not going to be the way she anticipated it.”

With college now behind her, the daughter of Forest Hills Public Schools social worker Stephanie Thornton said she is dealing with parallel uncertainties.

Rhea Thornton had a virtual graduation in May from the University of Alabama, where she majored in sports broadcasting. That’s a field she and her mother assumed had a secure future.

“There’s always going to be sports,” they would say.

But with most sports on the sideline for now, she’s got a pile of rejections from sports stations around the country.

Her plan for now: Move back home. Look for a job as a waitress when restaurants open up. Apply for work at a grocery shopping delivery service. Not exactly the career launch and new stage of life she envisioned through four years of college.

“I’ve always been a planner,” she said. “But I couldn’t plan for this. It definitely gives me anxiety, for where I will be or what I will be doing."

Suicide, mental health resources in Michigan during COVID-19

Here are some resources can call or visit if you or anyone you know needs help 

  • Managing stress: To manage feelings of COVID-19 stress and anxiety through meditation, sleep and movement exercises – contact Headspace web service, free during the crisis. Visit: or the Headspace meditation app. 
  • National helpline: For emotional distress in the context of the COVID-19 crisis – contact the National Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5950. Text: 66746. Available 24/7.
  • Mental illness/substance abuse: If you are living with serious mental illness or substance use challenges and feel it will help lower your stress if you talk with someone who understands these issues, contact Michigan PEER Warmline, 1-888-PEER-753 (888-733-7753). Available daily 10 a.m. to 2 a.m.
  • Text over talk: Are you experiencing emotional stress and anxiety but are more comfortable texting than talking – contact Michigan Crisis Text Line. Text the keyword RESTORE to 741741. Open 24/7.
  • Community Mental Health: Want local help from the nearest Community Mental Health Services Program – call 211, or visit Suicidal thoughts: If you are thinking of taking your life:
  1. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. Available 24/7. Visit 
  2. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Deaf and Hard of Hearing Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 (TTY 1-800-799-4889). Visit 
  3. Health care workers, first responders and grocery workers also can reach out to MI Frontline Support, which offers hotline numbers, video support sessions and links to a list of clinicians throughout the state. Note: This is not a free service, but instead a listing of available therapists. 

Sources: Michigan Stay Home Stay Well and MI Frontline Support

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