How are Teens and Young Adults Coping Through this Pandemic?

Here is what early research on Jewish teens and young adults tells us.

By Nila Rosen

As a researcher, I always seem to have a question falling out of every pocket. How many perplexing and unanswered questions do we have about this pandemic? Too many: How exactly have we changed since the emergence of Covid-19? What normalcy are we still clinging to? What behaviors will endure? Does our flexibility, grit, and optimism have a long enough shelf life to make it through all of this? What is it that truly helps us make it through every day? How long will this last? How is my experience of isolation (and those of my teenage children) the same as others? How is it different? And my deepest question as a mom – how will my kids weather the scrapes and bruises of this pandemic, assuming they will be lucky enough to avoid catching the virus itself?

When I stepped into the role of Director of Learning and Research at Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC), I was asked to further investigate and explore a field whose very essence is to promote exploration and personal growth. When many overnight camps, the hosts of this growth for over 180,000 youth and young adults each summer, had to make the painful decision to shut down for 2020, we embarked upon a research project to try to answer some of the questions above. And our research shows that personal growth has not halted by any means; it is being fostered in new and dynamic ways.

In May, when the crushing cancellation of camp was upon us, FJC asked camps and counselors what they needed this summer and how we could be of service. We also investigated how Jewish teens and young adults across the United States and Canada were feeling and faring. I wanted to look at what was helping and what was hindering. I wanted to better understand how teens and young adults were dealing with the enormous blow to their summer plans, their lives, and their expectations for the future. Underneath it all, I wanted to know what was sustaining them, besides Netflix?

As an epidemiologist, I like to work with a large sample size, observe patterns, and use rigorous methods. While those responding to these questions were not the gold-standard random sample or clear of all bias, the data collected represents a cross-section of over 300 Jewish teen and young adult souls across North America from over 30 different states and provinces in high schools, colleges, grad schools, gap years, or who had just recently graduated from college. Most were in schools or programs that were being upended and moving online. They all planned to be overnight camp counselors at Jewish camp in summer 2020, and now their hopes and lives were suspended mid-air… or actually mid-screen.

In May, here is how Jewish teens and young adults were doing:

They were more depressed and concerned than usual. 63% reported they were feeling more overwhelmed and sad than they used to, and that COVID had decreased their overall psychological well-being. Most point to specific stressors, including feeling the security of their future had decreased, and more worried about the loss of summer income. More than 55% said they would welcome more mental, emotional, social, and spiritual health support.

While they were more depressed, they were also reaching out to others when feeling sad and isolated. 88% reported reaching out to others when they were feeling isolated. 79% cited feeling that their Jewish friends had helped them cope with the pandemic. 66% expressed feeling more connected to their families, and 65% were managing to feel connected even while social distancing.

They were flexing their flexibility skills. 78% were open to adapting to something new for their summer and 50% felt more resilient due to the pandemic.

The importance of camp was even more elevated. 81% felt that COVID had increased the importance of summer camp and 80% reported feeling more gratitude for the little things in life. This is what I might call the COVID silver lining.

And here is where things get even more interesting. We tested some hypotheses. I suspected that those who were feeling close to their families would feel less sad and depressed – that families would buffer the psychological and emotional effects of COVID. However, when we ran the data, we found that feeling close to family did not have the buffering impact that I expected. Those who were feeling more connected to their families were slightly less worried about the loss of summer income, so it was helping, but family wasn’t driving the mental and emotional states of young people – friends and community were.

The data showed something else too – those who were feeling grateful for the small things in life that we often take for granted, were those who were also more likely to reach out to others when feeling isolated. Young people who felt more gratitude during the early stages of the pandemic also felt MORE able to connect with others. This shows us evidence that the practice of gratitude allows us to advocate for and attain what we need, even in a pandemic. Or vice versa, that those who were more able to connect with others are more able to feel gratitude in life. Can we appreciate the power and impact of gratitude and connection for a minute?

Strength from camp community. Here is something else worth noting: feeling that your camp community was helping you to cope with the pandemic was correlated with so many other positive drivers, including feeling that Jewish friends have helped you cope, feeling able to connect while social distancing, and actively reaching out to others when feeling isolated. This data provides confirmation and evidence that a strong community affects individuals in multiple positive and influential dimensions.

While we still don’t have all the answers, we do have a sense of how teens and young adults were doing in May. How teens and young adults are doing now, in August 2020, is an entirely new question as all of this data was collected before the chilling death of George Floyd and before teens knew for certain that they would not be touching foot in high schools or college campuses in the fall. We also know that life is now more challenging and that this bit of research is just scratching the surface.

The data shows us that we need more pathways through isolation, more innovations to increase authentic human connection. We need to keep building passageways back to community. We are in a perplexing era of child and human development, and the need for support, introspection – and each other – is more real than ever before. We have to keep reaching out in creative ways, checking in with each other, supporting one another, and building community. The development of this generation is depending on it.

Nila Rosen joined Foundation for Jewish Camp (FJC) in January 2020 as Director of Learning and Research. Her area of focus is building healthy and resilient individuals, communities, environments, and organizations and the interactions between these systems. Nila holds an M.P.H. in epidemiology in maternal child health from the University of California, Berkeley and a B.A. from Oberlin College in English and writing. She lives in Berkeley, CA with her husband and her two inspiring teenagers. Nila’s indispensable collaborators and thought partners on this article include FJC’s Gaby Schoenfeld, Jill Goldstein Smith, and Rabbi Avi Orlow, with research assistance by Libbie Brooks.