Young people are suffering. We must listen to them.
We’ve asked so much of young people in this pandemic. We demanded they forgo everything to keep the rest of us safe. We asked them to bear the brunt and we asked them to cope. Now, a looming mental health crisis makes me worry we might have overestimated how much they could take.
Lockdown has been hard on the young. As a mother to two young adults, I’ve seen first-hand how confinement has crushed hopes and ruined plans. Worse still, for the millions already struggling with mental health issues, the pandemic has delivered a devastating setback.
From a selfish point of view, I’ve loved spending this bonus time with my son and daughter. I hadn’t expected to live with them for a longer stretch again now that they are both adults in their early twenties. But when the world first entered lockdown last year, they came to live with me and my husband for a time in Vienna.
Though it wasn’t unpleasant, coming home hadn’t been part of the plan for either of them. Both had left for university and taken their first steps into adult life. COVID threw them backwards into the nest, robbing them of time they should have spent exploring the world.
Living life solely through a screen has been heartbreaking for many, especially those with existing mental health issues. Instead of time with friends on campus or at school, lockdown has forced young people to spend their days staring forlornly at their computers. The result: loneliness, anxiety, hopelessness, and depression.
Recent graduates have it just as hard. Many are living alone, struggling on little or no income, or separated indefinitely from long-distance partners. Others are having to watch in despair as economies implode and opportunities crumble just as they prepare to launch their careers.
Now, with lockdowns dragging on in many places, young people find themselves last in line to get a vaccine. And yet this is the generation most eager to get out into the world in search of knowledge, relationships, and careers. Lockdowns are still needed in many places now. But we can’t ask the young to stay inside forever.
The scale of the problem is staggering. Last month, UNICEF raised the alarm about the mental health of 332 million children worldwide after finding that 1 in 7 have been stuck at home for at least nine months. Meanwhile, lockdowns have denied more than 168 million a whole year of school.
The impact is becoming increasingly clear. One study found one in four young Americans considered suicide last summer, while another suggested 42% of youth in Latin America and the Caribbean were suffering anxiety or depression. In the UK, 40% of young people said their mental health had deteriorated during the pandemic.
With figures like that, recovery from this crisis could prove a long, hard road. Only time will tell what kind of long-term impact the lockdowns will have on this generation. The sad truth is that some will struggle to heal completely from this dark chapter of their lives.
Still, there is cause for hope. We are experiencing a sea change in attitudes towards mental health, with young people increasingly more willing to talk about their problems and to ask for help. No one of any age should have to suffer in silence. We must all listen to those who are struggling and help them access the treatment they need.
Here too, drastic action is needed. The pandemic has seen youth mental health services suspended around the world just at the time when they are most needed. This must be rectified at once, without delay. No society can afford to abandon a whole generation to despair.
Now the vaccines are here, we’re all looking forward to the day the lockdowns are no longer needed. But as we step forward out of this acute phase, let’s make sure we consider the needs of the young. Let’s put them at the center of our recovery plans. We asked a lot of them in this pandemic. Now we owe it to them to give them back their future.