Editor's note: This is the first in a two-part series.

Throughout this pandemic, which first struck the island in March, there's been a lot of focus on how things need to get done – from teaching to learning. There's also been a huge focus on physical health and what to do to stay safe from the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

However, the pandemic did more than just shut down schools, put a stop to school sports, and restrict friends hanging out at the mall or at the beach. These activities are a large part of a healthy, well-rounded life experience.

In recent conversations among The Scoop reporters, the topic of stress, depression and anxiety and how the pandemic has amplified these emotions led to a forum on mental health.

Counselors Ovita Perez, of the Guam Behavioral Health and Wellness Center, and Leanna Borja, of Jose Rios Middle School, joined The Scoop reporters on Nov. 14. They shared their experience as counselors and moms, and offered healthy ways for teens to cope with negative emotions during the pandemic.

Kai Leigh Harrison: What are some ways that you can suggest for students to be able to provide strong mental and emotional support for each other, now that we are socially distancing?

GBHWC counselor Ovita Perez: What you guys can do, really, is try to connect, as much as you can. ... I think you can utilize social media, and really just have someone to talk to, and call on your friends. But extend that out to your peers because sometimes we need help to know that we're not alone.

And what helps us, especially with (not seeing) our colleagues very often is we have Zoom meetings (that) can be set up where you guys can just talk about how you guys are feeling, what do you guys are doing, what we can do to ensure that your schoolwork is done.

Video exercising, maybe yoga or deep-breathing exercises, are some things that you can (do to) really connect with each other. But just to ... let them know that they're not alone.

JRMS counselor Leanna Borja: And I agree, I think a big misconception among adults, ... I feel like they think that if you're on social media, you're being social. In part that's true, but in a big way it's such an isolated thing to post a picture of yourself or a video of yourself (and) then you get comments ... but there's no real interaction. (There's no) real back and forth – and that's the meaningful conversations that you want to have to keep that connection going. ... I agree with Miss Perez that you (should) have your zoom meetings, make it fun.

Do a game night right! It doesn't have to be like a real serious check-in (on) how you're doing in the pandemic. I mean it can get to that, but it can start off really fun and light hearted.

(On) Halloween, my family did a dress up, so we did a little bit of a parade and things like that, so it's really lighthearted but it keeps that that connection with your relationships.

Sophie Nochefranca: Many students have grown anxious with online school. ... How can the stress from these situations be alleviated?

Borja: You are absolutely right. We are living in a prolonged stressful and sometimes traumatic experience, and that can really take a toll on someone's mental health. And then the uncertainty of going back and forth with the "Are we going to go face to face, are we not going to go face to face?" and the adjustment that you all have had to adapt to distance learning – that is a huge adjustment.

And we need to realize that every day and try to remember as faculty members from your different schools that it's an adjustment for you guys as much as it is an adjustment for us.

... And there is this sense of loss because you're not going to have that face to face. It's not a guarantee, unfortunately, with the rates that we've been having. But one of the things I think we should all do – adults and teens and pre-teens alike – is take breaks.

We spend so much time on the screen and getting fresh air, getting that vitamin D with the sun is really important. Remembering to exercise, right? And doing your best to keep a routine. Routine is so important and it'll make you feel like you're in school. And things won't get so overwhelming because you know, "At this time, I'm going to eat lunch, at this time I'm going to wake up, at this time I'm going to take a break."

... One of the things we do at Jose Rios is try to build capacity for coping with our students. And so we really promote mindfulness activities. And these mindfulness activities can be for situations when you're overwhelmed with the amount of school work you have for the week or you might have a full-blown mental health crisis like a panic attack.

So we try to talk to our kids about the 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 technique.

We get into our heads and we get anxious about whatever it is we're getting anxious about and that can be for any different reason. But once we take our mind out of it and focus on the here and now, the present – five things around you that you can see, four things I can feel, three things I can hear, two things I can smell and one thing I can taste – that kind of makes your mind ... switch and remember, "I'm still here, I'm still breathing, I'm present, I can make it through the day, and I can get to through that hurdle."

Perez: That's very correct, thank you for that Leanna.

In my work as a clinician, I really like sharing health so I can share some videos and practice mindfulness exercises with the students because a lot of the stressors are coming from school. They worry about not being able to submit the work timely. And especially with the seniors I have, are they going to graduate? You know, are they going to have the time to submit all their documents?

So one of my recommendations is to contact and reach out to your teachers, to the team members. ... I've even had to have some parents give consent to contact and I've contacted teachers directly, and teachers appreciate that. Sometimes they don't know, sometimes they don't understand, they can't contact their students – so just reach out.

I also impress upon the parents to do that as well (and) reach out to the teachers. I mean, we're all feeling the same thing – we're all feeling overwhelmed, we're all wondering what's going to happen next – so communicate.

I teach assertiveness skills to advocate for yourself – this is your school, this is your education. You deserve an education, so reach out and because this is the time that teachers will also be very sympathetic and if you reach out to them and let them know what you're going through they will understand. So, I've had teachers come back to me and say, "Wow, Ms. Perez, thank you very much. I will reach out." So you know we send out a thread of emails for the teachers, for the students that they work with, so it helps to just communicate and reach out to them.

Jin Chung: I would like to transition that into my next question. I believe this pandemic period is a time of increased stress for a lot of us, and so what are the signs that a classmate, a sibling or a family member might be suffering from mental strain, and what behaviors should we look out for, and how should we identify said signs in those around us?

Perez: There's signs when their behavior changes like if they are really, they like certain things and all of a sudden stop doing what they normally do. Be looking out for signs like that.

Borja: Absolutely, and if they're a student that is usually very on top of their work, and then all of a sudden they just don't go to their Google meets, right, or their Zoom meetings, you're seeing your friends not submit their work on time. That's kind of like the really really early signs that something is going on, they might be dealing with.

But yes, if they change their appetite if they don't like what they, you know, usually like, or they're not sleeping well, insomnia's a big one, And I know part of it has to do with gaming in the middle of the night, right?

But beyond that, you know those are definitely signs and symptoms you want to look out for. And then talk it over with them. You know, be honest because they might not even realize it themself that they're going through it and that it's reached a level that needs support, and a support system is such a big component on whether or not that exacerbates into something bigger, so catch it early and provide support to your friends.

Zia Sandoval: Regarding reaching out to school counselors for students: Are there any resources provided by GDOE for students that struggle with stress and anxiety?

Borja: Absolutely, there's lots. You know on the GDOE website there's actually a page for all the resources ... just like the one Miss Perez was talking about. But also take a look at your school websites.

At Jose Rios, we made it a point to make sure that our counseling website was updated. It's got a wealth of numbers and contact information, email addresses of different agencies. ... We all have email accounts and if you need our email account and you only know your teacher, email your teacher. Your teacher will give you the email account for your career counselor and we can reach out to you via phone right or via email. ...

We're still available to you ... it takes a little bit more than just walking over to our offices, you know ... but we're still there for you.

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