Image: Unsplash
Image: Unsplash

The impact of COVID-19 on mental health support for young people

Global crises are known to have drastic and far-reaching effects on our personal lives and mental health, particularly for younger generations. The nuclear missile crisis caused waves of anxiety for those growing up constantly anticipating the end of the world, while more recently climate change has generated a whole distinct wave of anxiety termed eco-anxiety. The coronavirus pandemic has followed in this pattern presenting huge amounts of uncertainty around what the virus will mean for our communities over the next weeks, months and years to come.

On top of the threat of the virus having devastating or longlasting impacts on our health and the health of those around us, the pandemic has also disrupted our everyday lives, interactions and routines. Lockdown measures, global financial crises and closures of schools, universities and workplaces have had astronomical impacts on young people’s mental health.

Separate research collected by You-COPE and Young Minds UK during the pandemic has highlighted that in the UK mental health issues have surged among teenagers and adults up to age 25, most notably with feelings of loneliness and isolation, fears about the virus and its impacts, and a lack of certainty surrounding their futures.

The very fabric of everyday conversations and interactions has altered at a time where little else is certain

80% of respondents in the Young Minds UK survey said that the pandemic had negatively affected their mental health while 87% acknowledged feelings of loneliness and isolation over lockdown even though many had continued to stay in contact with friends. As was the case for other sections of society, lockdown meant uncertainty across most areas of young people’s lives and significant disruption to their routines. However, for young people specifically, lockdown measures stripped many of both their support systems and coping mechanisms overnight.

The Young Minds UK report noted that “friends were seen as the most helpful form of support for young people”. This is likely due to young people feeling more able to speak to their peers about their problems and their feelings and being more in the practice of it.

The return to family homes for thousands of university students and the closure of schools during lockdown will have undoubtedly put a large strain on the support provided by friends. Though the ability for people to stay connected online and over the phone has been extremely useful, it is simply not the same as face-to-face conversations, and time spent in-person with others. The very fabric of everyday conversations and interactions has altered at a time where little else is certain.

The virus has already had a direct impact on the support that they were receiving

The report also addresses the impact that the pandemic will have on mental health services, expressing concern that strains on services existing before the pandemic will be worsened. Surges in mental health issues among young people will stretch services further, consequently applying “intense pressure” to mental health care in the months to come.

For many, the virus has already had a direct impact on the support that they were receiving, with 58% of participants reporting disruption to the mental health care that they had in place prior to lockdown. Face-to-face services have been cancelled or moved to phone and video calls, and support offered through universities and schools have had to adapt or be cut with lockdown measures in place. This has made matters worse for those suffering, particularly those who have been quarantined in more hostile and unsupportive environments.

The You-COPE survey found that 78% of respondents had experienced changes in their education or employment. For university students particularly, these changes are huge. Distanced and remote learning away from important resources such as libraries, labs and technology was put in place. Many people lost sources of income or had income reduced due to closure in part-time work. The majority of plans for travel over summer or following graduation have been cancelled.

All of these factors have contributed to young people feeling uprooted and unsettled

For recent graduates, ‘The Telegraph’  has reported that almost a third of graduate jobs have been either cancelled or deferred while ‘The Guardian’ discovered that “short-term work such as internships and placements will be reduced by almost a third”. All of these factors have contributed to young people feeling uprooted and unsettled.

Many of the challenges that young people have faced which have impacted their mental health have been widespread across the UK. If we continue to have conversations about our mental health and to acknowledge these difficulties and the scale of their impacts, we will be more able to support and create space for the challenges and difficulties that young people are experiencing.

With wider awareness of people’s experiences and their needs, we will gain a deeper understanding of what mental health support should look like in the months to come, and the ways that this can be achieved. Meanwhile, having more difficult conversations, checking in with people, and easing into post-lockdown life slowly are important steps we can all take to support one another in the coming months.

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