COVID-19 MENTAL HEALTH EFFECTS ON THE YOUTH

By Vincent Lyn

Reactions to COVID-19 have caused a great many changes to daily life. One group particularly affected by these changes is our youth from pre-teens to high-school students and college students. They are facing challenges that have never happened before on this scale.

I’ve spent the last two months in Portugal talking with 9th grade students, martial arts students and their teachers and it is quite alarming how the past 18 months has completely turned their entire lives upside down. There is an alarming mental health crisis that needs to be addressed not only by the Board of Education but local communities both city and statewide municipalities.

School provides structure and routine to the lives of students. Following the routine of getting up at a certain time, going to classes at specific times and coming home at a certain time provides a sense of normalcy in their lives. The predictability of knowing that third period math class follows second period history class allows students’ brains to focus on academic content. Expectations for behavior and academic performance are known and familiar. When schools closed students lost this structure and routine. Many were sent home with packets of assignments to complete but it is up to them to decide when and in what order they will do the assignments. At first, this greater amount of freedom and choice feels good — “Finally I get to decide what I want to do!” In short time though, it is easy to fall behind, to be distracted by other more desirable options (Netflix, video games, social media), or to become bored.

For most students school isn’t just about academics, it is also about social interactions. Many friendships started by sitting next to each other in class. The highlight of a student’s day might be walking down a certain hallway between fifth and sixth period because that’s when she can reliably expect to see the person she has a crush on. Groups of friends eat lunch together every day. Through their interactions with teachers and other school personnel young people learn to interact with non-family authority figures. In the hallways and classrooms of their school, young people are exposed to a variety of different cultures, perspectives and ways of living that may be different than their own.

Extracurricular activities were also affected by school closures. Many students enjoy participating in sports, music, school plays, robotics and a variety of other activities. Participation in these activities helps students to be more attractive applicants to colleges, universities and future employers. More importantly though, participation in these activities is an important part of students’ identities. They provide a “tribe” of others with whom a common interest and skill set is shared.

Senior year is typically the high point of a student’s high school career. Seniors this year are worried about being able to graduate. They’re worried about being able to qualify and be fully prepared for college admission. They’re aware that many colleges and universities that have shut down and wonder how this will affect their own future plans. If schools remain closed for the rest of the spring, students in their senior year will likely forfeit their last shot at a championship sports season, miss their last chance to perform with the choir or never get to perform in the play they’ve been rehearsing for so long. Seniors also face the possibility of missing out on milestone experiences including attending the senior prom and walking across the stage at commencement ceremonies.

Many adolescents have jobs at local restaurants, stores, movie theaters, gyms or other businesses that have closed, reduced the services being offered or reduced their hours of operation. The young people working at these establishments count on their pay checks to help with household expenses, to pay for things that are important to themselves (e.g. clothes, music, activities), to provide for transportation (e.g. gas, car insurance, car payments), or to save for college or other future endeavors. If their parent(s) or other members of their family have lost jobs or income due to closures, the student may feel even more stress over losing their ability to contribute to the family’s financial situation.

One the most stressful aspects of the current situation is not knowing. We don’t know who has been or will be infected. We don’t know who might be a carrier, spreading the virus to others without even knowing it. We don’t know when schools and businesses will re-open. We don’t know what the long-term effects of this pandemic will be.

Facing so many unknowns heightens anxiety. Some amount of fear and worry is a normal reaction to this abnormal situation. If a person’s anxiety is so intense that it is disrupting the person’s ability to concentrate on other things, interferes with the person’s ability to sleep at night or causes the person to avoid engaging in the things that he or she needs to do, it may be necessary to seek help.

Existing evidence clearly shows the most relevant and profound psychological impact of the outbreak on the general population, summarized the most relevant psychological reactions in the general population related to COVID-19 infection. Although aspecific and uncontrolled fears related to infection, pervasive anxiety, frustration and boredom, loneliness have been hypothesized to impair subjective wellbeing and quality of life, resilience and enhanced social support are protective factors that may help with regard to lifestyle changes and re-adaptation mechanisms.

Several existing studies demonstrated that those who have been exposed to the risk of infection may develop pervasive fears about their health, worries to infect others and fear infecting family members. reported that these individuals are more vulnerable than others to manifest worries if they experienced physical symptoms potentially linked to the infection and fear that symptoms are directly associated to actively having the infection even several months after the exposure. Other studies reported that pregnant women and individuals with young children are the most at risk to develop the fear of becoming infected or transmitting the virus.

Social isolation related to restrictions and lockdown measures are linked to feelings of uncertainty for the future, fear of new and unknown infective agents resulting in abnormally increased anxiety. Anxiety may be directly related to sensorial deprivation and pervasive loneliness, in this case first insomnia but later depression and post-traumatic stress occurred. In addition, anxiety is closely associated with fatigue and reduced performance in healthcare workers while boredom and loneliness are directly related to anger, frustration and sufferings linked to quarantine restrictions. Furthermore, additional tragic effects associated with pervasive anxiety in a pandemic period may include the perceived lower social support, separation from loved ones, loss of freedom, uncertainty and boredom.

Distress, boredom, social isolation and frustration are directly related to confinement, abnormally reduced social/physical contact with others, and loss of usual habits. Frustration and pervasive loneliness seem to derive by the inhibition from daily activities, interruption of social necessities, not taking part in social networking activities. Unfortunately, in this context hopelessness together with other individual characteristics such as the experience of childhood maltreatment as well as extreme sensory processing patterns may significantly and independently predict suicidal behavior, but even the unbearable anger related to the imposition of quarantine may lead to negative outcomes.

The final effect of social isolation is pervasive loneliness and boredom, which have potential dramatic effects on both physical and mental individual well-being. Pervasive loneliness may be significantly associated with increased depression and suicidal behavior. Unfortunately, the isolation is progressively enhanced by anxiety, panic or collective hysteria. Cognitive functions and decision making are firstly impaired by hyper-arousal and anxiety and later by disabling feelings of loneliness. In addition, social isolation and loneliness are also associated with alcohol and drug abuse. Both frustration and pervasive loneliness seem to derive by the inhibition from daily activities, interruption of social necessities, inability to take part in social networking activities enhancing the risk of hopelessness and suicidal behavior in this specific context. Overall, it is well known that long periods of social isolation or quarantine for specific illnesses may have detrimental effects on mental well-being.

Many governments have called on youth to embrace the effort to protect themselves and the overall population. Youth are also in a position to help those who are most vulnerable, and to aid in increasing public health social awareness campaigns among their communities. Thus, youth are critical to limiting the virus’s spread and its impact on public health, society, and the economy at large.

In terms of employment, youth are disproportionately unemployed, and those who are employed often work in the informal economy or gig economy, on precarious contracts or in the service sectors of the economy, that are likely to be severely affected by COVID-19.

More than one billion youth lives have been disrupted being physically out of school after the closure of schools and universities across many jurisdictions. The disruption in education and learning could have medium and long-term consequences on the quality of education, though the efforts made by teachers, school administrations, local and national governments to cope with the unprecedented circumstances to the best of their ability should be recognized. Many vulnerable youth such as migrants or homeless youth are in precarious situations. They are the ones who can easily be overlooked if governments do not pay specific attention, as they tend to be already in a situation without even their minimum requirements being met on health, education, employment and well-being.

The following are some tips and advice from the World Health Organization:

  • Have a routine. Keep up with daily routines as far as possible, or make new ones.
  • Get up and go to bed at similar times every day.
  • Keep up with personal hygiene.
  • Eat healthy meals at regular times.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Allocate time for working and time for resting.
  • Make time for doing things you enjoy.
  • Minimize newsfeeds. Try to reduce how much you watch, read or listen to news that makes you feel anxious or distressed. Seek the latest information at specific times of the day, once or twice a day if needed.
  • Social contact is important. If your movements are restricted, keep in regular contact with people close to you by telephone and online channels.
  • Alcohol and drug use. Limit the amount of alcohol you drink or don’t drink alcohol at all. Don’t start drinking alcohol if you have not drunk alcohol before. Avoid using alcohol and drugs as a way of dealing with fear, anxiety, boredom and social isolation.
  • There is no evidence of any protective effect of drinking alcohol for viral or other infections. In fact, the opposite is true as the harmful use of alcohol is associated with increased risk of infections and worse treatment outcomes.
  • And be aware that alcohol and drug use may prevent you from taking sufficient precautions to protect yourself again infection, such as compliance with hand hygiene.
  • Screen time. Be aware of how much time you spend in front of a screen every day. Make sure that you take regular breaks from on-screen activities.
  • Video games. While video games can be a way to relax, it can be tempting to spend much more time on them than usual when at home for long periods. Be sure to keep the right balance with off-line activities in your daily routine.
  • Social media. Use your social media accounts to promote positive and hopeful stories. Correct misinformation wherever you see it.
  • Help others. If you are able to, offer support to people in your community who may need it, such as helping them with food shopping.
  • Support health workers. Take opportunities online or through your community to thank your country’s health-care workers and all those working to respond to COVID-19.

Don’t discriminate

Fear is a normal reaction in situations of uncertainty. But sometimes fear is expressed in ways which are hurtful to other people. Remember:

  • Be kind. Don’t discriminate against people because of your fears of the spread of COVID-19.
  • Don’t discriminate against people who you think may have coronavirus.
  • Don’t discriminate against health workers. Health workers deserve our respect and gratitude.
  • COVID-19 has affected people from many countries. Don’t attribute it to any specific group.

Vincent Lyn

CEO/Founder at We Can Save Children

Director of Creative Development at African Views Organization

Economic & Social Council at United Nations

Middle East Correspondent at Wall Street News Agency

Rescue & Recovery Specialist at International Confederation of Police & Security Experts

Founder-We Can Save Children. Director Creative Development-African Views Organization, United Nations. Middle East Correspondent at Wall Street News Agency