Cut off by Covid – the impact of the pandemic on young minds

Photo by Alexander Krivitskiy at Unsplash
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It’s summer, normally a time for holidaying, socialising, enjoying the long sunny days and building resilience for the darker days ahead. Most of us remember summer holidays from school as one of the best times of our lives; meeting friends, going on trips, learning to flex our wings. This year is, of course, not like that.

For all of us, life in lockdown has been hard. Although some of us have benefited from spending time with our families and discovering new skills or pastimes, many have found the experience extremely difficult. One group, in particular, deserve particular understanding and support at this time: young people. They have had their lives affected more than most by the lack of social contact and curtailing of independence.

Pressures were already high for our young people. Social media has played a part, but so too have the constant testing and categorising at schools, and fears for the future in a world of global warming and economic uncertainty. Figures from 2017 show that almost one in eight young people met the clinical criteria for a mental health disorder, and that has worsened considerably due to lockdown.

Recent research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies found that mental health in the UK worsened by 8.1 per cent on average as a result of the pandemic. The deterioration was much worse for young adults and women – groups that already had poorer mental health even before Covid-19. Young women are likely to have suffered the most.

Barnardo’s, the charity that has been supporting children for more than 150 years, has been talking to young people in the West Country and their support workers. The charity’s report, Devalued, published recently, found that “Losing the freedom to see family and friends is a particularly difficult consequence of lockdown. This has led to an increased sense of isolation, in turn impacting on mental health and wellbeing, in some cases exacerbating existing issues. Alongside this, restricted face-to-face interactions with known and supportive professionals has presented additional challenges and further adverse experiences for some young people, such as feelings of powerlessness and being unable to move forward, change, or control their lives.”

One 17-year-old young woman said,

I feel just as I was sorting things out again, good relationships were forming, then everything felt it was taken away all of a sudden. I was just seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, then it all got taken away again.”

It is true that some young people have found that not going to school or college, spending more quality time with their family, going for a walk and caring for pets has been enjoyable and has allowed them to develop strategies which could help them in the future. There have, however, been major challenges for most young people, and even now, when they are allowed out more, the lack of clarity around Covid-19 messaging has made many unsure and anxious about how safe they are and how much they are allowed to do. The next big issue will be about how safe it will be to return to school or university.

I often dream and think about the impact it [Covid-19] could have on my future. I used to dream about university being the time where I flourished but if there’s still social distancing, I don’t know how I’ll meet up with people and make friends. I think it’s made me worry more often.” Young person, Barnardo’s blog

The government recently announced plans to increase spending on the NHS in England by an extra £20bn over the next five years. As a real-term spending increase, that averages 3.4 per cent each year. However, current spending of £12.2bn on mental health is only sufficient to treat 40 per cent of people with a mental health condition. If the government is to get closer to its goal of treating 70 per cent, spending on mental health services alone would need to be around £27bn. What is more, it is uncertain that all the mental healthcare positions that will be needed can actually be filled.

No-one can say when the threat of Covid-19 will be over. We know we must continue to wash hands and socially distance, but it is less clear which groups or how many people can meet, whether inside or out. The government could do a lot more to make everyone aware of measures to curtail the spread of the virus, and to explain the rationale behind them.

 “On the whole, young people feel that the information they are receiving about COVID-19 is confusing, negative and overwhelmingDevalued Report

On a positive note, many young people and their families have learned from the pandemic the value of connecting and making time for talking and listening. If professional help is needed, however, there are many organisations available to offer support, although their ability to cope with demand will vary from region to region. Waiting lists for treatment by NHS services are already overstretched, but a GP appointment could be the start. Barnardo’s is leading a coalition of charities in partnership with the Department for Education (DfE), to deliver a new and innovative programme called See, Hear, Respond across England. Other points of contact are talking therapies, Mind and Young Minds as well as  local mental health services.

Young people are our future. This is the kind of world they want to see:

“I would like the health and wellbeing of people to be a main focus for the government after the pandemic, for the poverty-stricken to not be abandoned and the people in those situations to be helped and not made to feel like scum for having government aid which is barely enough to keep them going.” 20 year-old woman.

If we are not to store up major problems for the future, we need to invest more in mental health services now, starting with the young. Problems addressed early on not only save money in the long run, but the intervention can transform and even save lives. On their website, Barnardo’s have summarised the actions that need to be taken. We reproduce their demands of government below.

  • Invest in a programme of free summer resilience building, social activities for children and young people
  • Rebalance the educational system so that it prioritises child welfare and wellbeing – see our Time for a Clean Slate report
  • Provide timely, transparent and clear information targeted at and accessible to children
  • Involve children and young people in ‘recovery planning’
  • Provide Education, Employment and Training opportunities to young people, ensuring they are accessible for the most disadvantaged.
  • Support development of alternative therapeutic interventions where it could benefit children who have suffered trauma
  • Commit to long term, sustainable funding for redesign of local support for children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing.

If we are serious about helping young people get the start in life they deserve, we should all be pushing the government to make the investment in young people’s mental health.