The Psychological Effects of COVID-19 on Young People

Corey Seemiller
Apr 22, 2020 · 5 min read

Much has been researched and discussed about young people’s mental health. This isn’t surprising given their high rates of anxiety and depression and extremely high levels of stress, worry, and concern among Generation Z (born 1995–2010). How might what is occurring with both the pandemic and the response impact Generation Z now and in the future? Will this experience affect their perception of grief and loss? Will they continue to feel a sense of fear and vulnerability?

Grief and Loss

With mass numbers of the infected and relatively high mortality rates, there are countless people experiencing grief and loss. Young people, among everyone, are losing parents and loved ones to a disease with no cure; and the lucky ones, whose family members are spared, may have also had to witness them suffering from sickness or being quarantined away …fearing their impending death. And, young people are also getting sick. Thus, the invincibility of youth isn’t protecting them from being victims themselves. This fear of getting sick or having a loved one get sick is a heavy burden to bear, especially for young people who may never have experienced this type of trauma.

In addition, there is anxiety around the impact of social distancing measures on the functioning of society. Before the pandemic, many older Gen Zers were already expressing concern over money and a worry about world issues. This doesn’t bode well for coming of age during a major global crisis, which has resulted in a declining economy.

Lost Opportunities

On a day-to-day level, young people from elementary to college students are adjusting to having their classes delivered online and living an entirely new routine. Students are missing commencements, important student activities, study abroad experiences, sports seasons, school performances, and student employment opportunities. And, all of these were cut short with little to no notice, leaving them no closure on these important milestones.

But, it’s not just about missing experiences; it’s about losing opportunities that will never come again. For instance, a high school senior who misses a final sports season may lose an opportunity to earn a scholarship, resulting in perhaps not being able to go to college at all. College students who took out loan debt may now have a lifetime of payments for the credits they earned but will have missed the traditional collegiate experience they paid for. And, many college seniors who were anticipating an entrance into a career field that they spent years studying for are now laid off before work even begins. Although these examples may seem to pale in comparison to illness and death, intense feelings of loss and grief are not bound to what others deem the most significant.

Effects of the Pandemic

While there have been several interesting unintended consequences of the response to the pandemic, such as a reduction in carbon emissions or unexpected wildlife roaming in urban areas, another, more stark, result has been a drop in crime worldwide. For example, March 2020 marked the very first March in 18 years in which there were no school shootings. That may not be surprising in that most schools were closed; but, it is a likely welcome relief to the many in Generation Z who feared going to school because of the potential for a mass shooting to occur. However, gun sales that same month hit record numbers, being the second-highest ever, fanning the fears that gun violence may increase after the lockdowns. Will those in Generation Z be emotionally ready to return to a physical site for school after feeling the safety and security of staying home with families?

Another issue that may result in living through the pandemic, for everyone, is contending with the silent perpetrator: an unseen virus. While we will likely end up with a vaccine and treatment for COVID-19, there will be more viruses in the future. Now that people know that they can get sick from day-to-day actions, will they behave differently? An older person who is accustomed to shaking hands with people may simply go back to shaking hands. But, young people who probably shook very few hands in their lifetimes may see that gesture as not just an outdated nicety but also a dangerous and risky move.

And, what about concerts, sporting events, parades, festivals, and even graduation ceremonies? Will young people ever want to be in a crowd again? They may readily gather with their small group of friends after the pandemic passes. But, will they go to big events? Maybe not…at least for a while.

Will they choose to travel after learning not just how unsafe it can be but how misleading many travel companies had been in protecting the safety of travelers? Or, will they become savvier consumers, researching information on their own to make decisions about event attendance based on the presumptive risk?

How might the grief, loss, fear, and vulnerability that young people experience today impact them in the future? Like Millennials with 9/11, there was certainly evidence of effects after-the-fact. Will this be even more pronounced with Generation Z today given that this pandemic has not been marked by one traumatic event but instead by recurring trauma, taking place everywhere at the same time with no end in sight? And, as a more realistic than optimistic generation, will this be fodder for them to proceed through their lives feeling a dark cloud is always above? Or will this massive crisis lead to a generation of resilience whose members can harken back to a time in history that they survived, like Gen Zer, Lydia Lee, points out?

While we cannot be sure what is to come, as we weren’t until well after 9/11 with Millennials, we can at least know the right questions to ask and the behaviors to watch for to provide the best support to a generation coming of age during a pandemic.

Continue reading the remainder of articles in this series:

1. How COVID-19 Could Change a Generation Forever
2. The Political Effects of COVID-19 on Young People
3. The Economic Effects of COVID-19 on Young People
4. The Psychological Effects of COVID-19 on Young People-you are reading this article
5. The Sociological Effects of COVID-19 on Young People
6. The Social Effects of COVID-19 on Young People

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