Future of Us: Deprived of social connections during the pandemic, teens learned to prioritize their mental health

A person poses for a portrait
Shani Tran poses for a portrait at Thrive co-working space for women in Gilbert, Ariz., on June 9.
Caitlin O’Hara for MPR News

This story is part of a series called “The Future of Us,” exploring how a pandemic, a murder and a city on fire have changed us and our path forward.

Isolation. Worry. Loneliness. These were hallmarks of the first years of COVID-19. For those coming of age during the pandemic, those feelings were amped up to teenage heights. 

High school freshmen spent hours on Zoom calls, confronted with black boxes instead of being in class where they could read the looks on their fellow students’ faces. 

At a time of life when friends are everything and everyone feels awkward, the very idea of a social gathering had extra layers of pressure, anxiety and judgment piled on top of it. 

Create a More Connected Minnesota

MPR News is your trusted resource for the news you need. With your support, MPR News brings accessible, courageous journalism and authentic conversation to everyone - free of paywalls and barriers. Your gift makes a difference.

Then there were the rites of passage — the ones grandparents, parents and older siblings had experienced and held dear. Those rites and rituals were gone, skipped, sorry, not happening, not for you. 

The kids were not all right. 

“They have experienced something in their generation that an adult can't potentially understand,” said Shani Tran, a licensed therapist and author of “Dope Therapy: A Radical Guide to Owning Your Therapy Journey.” 

“It’s just like trauma on top of trauma on top of trauma. And then who do I talk to? I can reach out to my friends. But that’s not the same through text, or through FaceTime as it is to really sit and be with a human being, offer hugs, look at someone and tell them, ‘I see you,’” she said, adding that she is seeing more ADHD and anxiety in her young patients. 

And yet, Tran sees a positive side. 

“We’re having more conversations about mental health,” she said. “I think that this generation is learning, my mental health comes first.”

She sees signs of this on TikTok. In particular, she points to a trend of young adults posting videos using the acronym PTO as shorthand for “Prepare The Others” rather than “Paid Time Off.” 

“It's definitely one of those viral trends, where people say, ‘I’m putting in my PTO,’ and they’re already, like, on vacation. And the manager is like, ‘I’m sorry, your PTO wasn’t approved,’ and the person's like, ‘Oh, you thought Paid Time Off? No, I meant, Prepare The Others. So the other people that are working within the corporation, prepare them so that they can do the work because I won’t be doing the work.’”

Those, clearly, are jokes, but they point to the power of social media to open up conversations about mental health. And that is, well, healthy, said Tran, whose TikTok channel @theshaniproject has more than 500,000 followers.   

“The thing that I hope people take away from this is that all of this stuff on the Internet — even from professionals — is meant to start the conversation and go from there,” Tran said. 

Another positive change in mental health care is that more therapists are showing up authentically, Tran said. 

“Through my social media, I see a lot of therapists telling me, ‘You know what, I wear Nikes.’ I show my tattoos. I’ve had, like, 10 clients ask me, ‘What’s that tattoo mean? And I tell them the story behind it” she said. “So there’s self-disclosure. The reason that gives me hope is because clients, people, are now being seen more as human.”

That’s not the only thing that gives Tran hope. 

Today’s youth have a particular brand of grit and tools for self-preservation that stems from coming of age during this particular time. 

“How that then transfers forward is like, ‘I’ve been through this. I can persevere through this,” she said. “I see intuitiveness, resilience — those characteristics that come out of, like, a species when they’re trying to survive. 

“But the kicker here is: I think that this generation is going to do more than survive; they’re gonna thrive.”

Hear the full conversation with Tran using the audio player above.