Welcome back? Reflections on the impact of COVID-19 on youth mental health

Since the advent of the first lockdown, there has been growing evidence of the psychological impact of COVID-19 on various population groups, with cross-sectoral concerns particularly focused on the mental health of young people. Research in various geographic settings has shown that young people experienced symptoms of depression, anxiety, eating problems, and suicidal tendencies during the pandemic.

Yet over the past 18 months, young people’s own perspectives on their mental health have not always been fully heard in research or public debate. As we move beyond the pandemic, this risks being poorly targeted or based on assumptions. Additionally, the need to listen to young people themselves becomes especially urgent as schools and universities reopen and learners return for a new school year.

One space in which young people have expressed their concerns, thoughts and feelings over the past eighteen months is on social media. Many have turned to various platforms to discuss their mental health and voice their needs for support.

At the University of Birmingham, we’ve been using online ethnography to analyze these mental health-focused discussions since March 2020. This has revealed the many and complex ways the pandemic has impacted on the mental health of young people, highlighting the similarities and differences between experiences and needs. different groups and at various times during the pandemic.

Often expressed in clinical language, through social media, young people wrote candidly about “feeling depressed” or “anxious”, engaging in self-harm and being suicidal. Some with a history of suicidal thoughts described how these increased, and others described feeling like suicide for the first time. The young people supported each other through these experiences in the absence of formal support and also discussed causation in complex ways.

Young people spoke of school closures and difficulties with online education, citing them as causes of anxiety, depression and suicide. They also discussed difficult family environments and a feeling of being locked in. Others have described the loneliness of being away from peers and its contribution to new experiences of depression. But, many young people also described being out of school as helping their mental health, with descriptions of “anxiety returning” when institutions reopened. This highlights the divergent experiences young people have with school, as it doesn’t always feel like a safe space.

In turn, many young people poignantly expressed a sense of lost opportunity, believing that the pandemic has “stolen” important events like graduation and also reduced future possibilities. Economic concerns have been widely debated, with anxiety over their own job prospects woven through gloomy conversations about how long it will take for the company to recover economically.

It is also noteworthy that some young people have taken to social media to express their fear of catching and transmitting the virus. Many have expressed anxiety over the impact of COVID-19 on others, describing a palpable fear of being the person who could give it to vulnerable loved ones. This is especially important as we now enter a new academic year and return to face-to-face teaching in universities and schools. The removal of infection control measures has created anxiety and fear among young people concerned about their own safety and, more often, that of others.

As such, experiencing COVID-19 has had a complex and varying psychological impact on young people. While some have seen improved well-being away from stressors such as school, the pandemic has also exacerbated previous mental health issues and spawned new ones.

Yet this conclusion should be approached with caution; It is striking that conversations on social media have focused as much on the well-being of others and societal concerns as on individual challenges. Many young people, for example, described experiencing depression while in isolation while also understanding the need for virus control measures and expressing anxiety about their withdrawal. The social affiliation that such intertwining demonstrates is key to how we must support young people emerging from the pandemic.

To date, public and political discourse in the UK has tended to focus on the specific singular causes of poor mental health among young people through COVID-19, such as school closings. This has led to calls to allow “young” or “healthy” a freedom or a “normal” that has not always been in step with larger societal events. While well-intentioned, this approach belies the complexity and socially connected nature of young people’s experiences during the pandemic and risks imposing a kind of politicized non-belonging that does more harm than good.

Instead, as we emerge from the pandemic and enter a new academic year, there is a need to look beyond a conceptualization of their mental health that sets young people apart from broader societal concerns. Instead of, create hope through action and forging appropriate support will require a systems approach that places the societal belonging and social contexts of young people at the heart of their concerns.

Learn more about the mental health resources available to students at the University of Birmingham

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