Recently I shared research on the impact of the pandemic and lockdowns on youth with some local mentors. While the impact will vary from country to country, there were some common themes which I will share in this blog, ending with some strategies and tips anyone guiding youth can adapt to their particular relationship with a young person.
Most studies reported mental health deterioration among youth due to COVID-19 pandemic control measures.
75% of mental illnesses first appear before the age of twenty-four. Most young people are living within an environment of fear and division which will significantly impact their thinking and feelings and, therefore, their mental health and wellbeing.
Developmental position of youth
Developmentally, youth are no longer primarily influenced by only parents or caregivers, and significant adult role models. They are becoming more heavily influenced by peers. Peer relationships form a crucial role in helping form youth into adulthood by building their identity and social affiliations. There are concerns that social distancing and deprivation could have profound effects on young people during this sensitive developmental time, a unique period of life when their social environment plays such a crucial role in their neurological development, the construction of self and their mental health.
Two key developmental tasks for teens are to develop social skills and empathy, and a sense of identity. These tasks happen through interactions with peers. So, it’s important to understand that many students return to school after lockdowns with not only educational setbacks, but also setbacks in their social and emotional skills.
Staying digitally socially connected could alleviate some of these concerns: chatting, conferencing, video chats, blogging, online gaming. However, we must not see social media as a protective factor. Passive social media, such as mindless scrolling, can negatively influence wellbeing.
What has been going on?
Most teenagers have experienced:
- Months of virtual or online learning
- More time isolated from friends
- The cancellation of important social activities like school performances, sports, music and drama competitions, formals or semi-formals, graduations
- Being in the house with family members, a different experience for every child.
One researcher noted: “One thing that is really important for adults is to remember to allow their kids to grieve over their losses … their grief over what they are experiencing – or not getting to experience – is real and parents [mentors] need to give them time to process it.”
The pandemic is highlighting a lot of existing societal divides in the way it is disproportionately impacting lower-income communities. In these areas there will be higher levels of stress and trauma as the impacts are more severe. For example, food insecurity, housing instability, loss of family income, higher rates of family and friends’ deaths. These young people can’t all access internet and technology, therefore they can’t link with friends and their school; or there are not enough devices in the home. So, these students are more likely to be left behind or under-served. In some families, older children might be taking care of younger siblings, so they have less time for school work, maybe not even a quiet place to study. They are likely to fall behind.
Other youth are living in households where there is abuse and interpersonal violence, so they are at an even higher risk. Youth in these situations might not show serious adjustment problems outwardly, but experience levels of distress internally, which puts them at a greater risk of psychological and interpersonal levels of distress later in life. The pandemic just makes things worse. The fallout from this will last a long time. Stress and trauma have significant impacts on mental health.
Most research papers highlighted the high prevalence of COVID-19-related fear as well as more depressive and anxious symptoms compared with pre-pandemic estimates. Young girls seem to be more affected than boys.
School closures affect school dropout rates; possibly the ability to provide young people a consistent daily meal, and access to health services could be compromised.
Some of the common age-related distress experiences include: trouble with sleep patterns, difficulty falling asleep, recurring nightmares; increased physical complaints like headaches, stomach aches; changes in appetites.
An interesting point was made linked to online learning. Extended periods of time communicating, learning and socializing via video chat platforms are understood to drain energy faster than face-to-face interactions due to the need to work harder to notice and process non-verbal cues such as facial expressions, tone and pitch of voice, and body language.
Research tells us that following a traumatic event young people often have difficulty concentrating and learning in school. Some school-aged children might engage in aggressive or antisocial behaviors such as, angry outbursts, tantrums, withdrawing from friends and activities.
Students and families that might have had the virus face the fear of stigma and the stigma experienced by these young people who might have been quarantined, then head to school ….
Short-term loneliness through forced isolation may encourage youth to engage in risky behavior and resort to substance abuse; apathy or lower levels of vigor; drop in grades; suicidal thoughts. Long-term mental health issues increase the long-term risk of depression, obesity and high blood pressure.
Many youth are facing financial instability and employment insecurity; they crave a return to normalcy in education; they miss the physical connection; they are concerned about accessibility and others’ wellbeing. For example, a young person loses their job – they are more than twice as likely to have high distress than others not as directed financially. This can create serious economic distress which in turn is a significant risk factor for psychological distress, including anger and anxieties for months after lockdowns are lifted.
Therefore, the economic impacts of COVID-19 on youth are likely to be long-lasting – they are not gaining the critically important income and skill development. So, as prospects dwindle, many face social exclusion, or see their emotional, mental or physical health deteriorate.
The legacy of the COVID-19 outbreak and the way it has been handled by the different governments could last for decades. There is particular concern about the ‘slow burn’ impacts of educational and employment constraints, and the role the pandemic is playing in widening health inequalities.
A key point: The relationship between economic health and mental health is inextricably linked.
The unknowns, but issues youth will be thinking about, could include:
- Will companies have apprenticeships, internships, or temporary work opportunities?
- Youth make up a large proportion of jobs in customer-facing industries such as accommodation, tourism, and hospitality—sectors strongly affected by this crisis. Will there be jobs for them?
We know that young people are highly influenced by adults in their lives, and this affect is amplified in crisis situations, like a pandemic. At such times adults serve as their safety net and model coping skills – they help youth make sense of the situation and to begin processing the crisis. What does this look like in every family?
Youth in strong, united, stable families, with parents actively engaged in their lives are likely to be strengthening their resilience; as they learn to master current challenges their personal growth and development will be noticeable.
A group that might actually thrive in this pandemic are those who feel bullied at school. Being in a safe home environment, following academic direction etc. could enhance their personal growth and development.
The way forward
Connectedness is a key pillar in almost every model of wellbeing, social and youth development, so do your best to create a shared sense of community and belonging which is so powerful when providing a sense of identity and connection to others.
One research paper stressed that habits formed at this age can have life-time implications. Keep exploring positive interventions.
Youth have identified people as the primary source of crisis recovery:
- Parents, caregivers, relatives, teachers, volunteers, peers, celebrities- and pets.
- Trusted people play a critical role to help youth recovery and develop their resilience. Encourage your mentee to connect with as many positive peers as they possibly can, as well as trusted adults. Just as we talk about ‘crowd funding’, think ‘crowd supporting’.
- Be there for them: provide sensitive guidance and emotional support.
Important points to remember:
- You can’t fix families
- You can’t rescue or save children
- There is no ‘quick-fix’ to the short and long-term results and impacts of this pandemic.
You can move alongside your mentee in a non-judgmental, cheerleader role and promote a sense of HOPE in the face of adversity. Share a message like this: the sun is shining beyond the storm clouds—we will get through this together, so we must plan to see you soar like an eagle as soon as the return to normalcy occurs. We are not going to let this pandemic beat us. We’ll beat it together and come out even stronger and more focused on the other side. This is thinking pro-actively, and painting a positive vision of the future.
The faster youth can resume familiar routines, the greater the reduction of trauma-related symptoms. Areas to focus on which will lead to better mental health outcomes would include:
- Positive attitudes
- Values or beliefs
- Conflict resolution skills
- Positive self-esteem
- Strong social supports
- Community engagement
- Problem-solving skills
- Positive adult role models
15 strategies and tips to guide youth through the months ahead
In addition to points made above, here are some tips and strategies to guide youth through the months ahead.
- Never forget the power of an empathetic adult in the life of a young person. Allow them to grieve and to share their experiences and feelings. Show compassion and care.
- Go to youth-friendly places—natural environments, recreation places i.e., places which support their physical and psychological needs; evoke hope, renewal and stability—this includes quiet spaces on their own.
- Activities offer a means of expression, distraction and fun.
- Identify some strengths and explore ways your mentee can further develop those strengths in the months ahead.
- Activity through story telling is an important form of recovery. This allows the emotional cathartic release of trauma and experience through art, writing, performance and music. Hands-on activities share a message of a return to normalcy.
- Youth benefit from sharing a sense of adversity and belonging. Enable them to share their thoughts in a safe, non-judgmental environment, to make suggestions and offer solutions for the days and months ahead—this then becomes an empowering journey.
- Encourage positive peer support.
- Encourage daily exercise – jogging, walking, walking the dog, playing tennis/basketball/netball, or go and throw a frisbee – whatever you are allowed to do safely outdoors. And, don’t wear a mask when exercising!
- Encourage them to eat well—a healthy and balanced diet is essential.
- Discuss the importance of between nine and ten hours of sleep each night with any technology either switched off or left in another room.
- Encourage time out—time for reflection, meditation, yoga (or whatever their faith or culture might practice), and so on. This promotes a sense of calm.
- Encourage the development of a hobby or tackling something new—a new interest, perhaps?
- Focus on the importance of keeping busy, as it will help them get through these challenging times. Work with them to develop a new management of time schedule. Young people are incredibly innovative, so think of fun ways to celebrate special moments, for example.
- When you are able to chat, make sure that you also focus on fun and humor, though much will depend on how your mentee is feeling. Expect a roller-coaster of emotions and, as you do so, reassure them that this is normal given the experiences they have been going through.
- Talk about the return to school, as a good school provides:
- Daily routines which help youth to feel grounded, reduces stress to some extent, and shows how they have some control over their life.
- Social contact—linked to this point, parents are encouraged to renegotiate screen time and to talk about what type of screen time. A key is to use social media in positive and healthy ways.
- Social and emotional support from teachers.
- A sense of belonging to the community.
- Access to physical exercise and other activities which they enjoy.
Never quit on a young person, especially in the months ahead. Your consistent presence is more needed than you might imagine.
Do your best to work out how best you can be a reassuring consistent, positive, empathetic, stable and trusting (PEST) presence in your mentee’s life, and one day they will thank you for walking alongside them during these challenging times.