COVID-19 Weighs Heavily on Young People’s Mental Health

International Youth Day – Loneliness, depression, anxiety, substance abuse and job losses. These are some of the ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic is weighing on children and young adults who have been isolated from friends, leisure activity and job opportunities by lockdowns and social distancing.

Over 1.5 million children have also lost their parents and caregivers to COVID, giving rise to a “hidden pandemic of orphanhood”.

Over half of young people in the US (56%) aged 18 to 24 have reported feeling anxious or depressed during the pandemic, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF). A quarter of young adults also reported suicidal thoughts and substance abuse.

“During the pandemic, adults in households with job loss or lower incomes report higher rates of symptoms of mental illness than those without job or income loss (53% vs. 32%),” said the KFF, which drew its conclusions from the US Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey, a survey created to capture data on the  impact of the pandemic.

Heated debates in the US about how schools could open up safely this week in the face of Delta variant surges have heightened the stresses on school-going youth, particularly as more young people are becoming infected.

Recognising that “students benefit from in-person classes”, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends “universal indoor masking” by all students from the age of two, staff, teachers, and visitors “regardless of vaccination status”, and that schools maintain “at least three feet of physical distance between students in classrooms”.

However, at least nine US states – Arizona, Arkansas, Florida, Iowa, Montana, North Dakota, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas – have banned or limited the CDC mask mandates.

Despite COVID-19 infections surging in Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis has threatened to withhold the salaries of teachers at schools that are enforcing the CDC mask mandate.

Law suits have been filed – both from parents opposed to their children wearing masks, such as in New Jersey, and from parents opposed to state governors’ refusing to implement mask-wearing, such as in Texas.

This has heightened anxiety for parents and children as US schools re-open after the summer break.

Rise in substance abuse

There has also been a marked increase in deaths from drug overdoses in the US, which jumped by 30% last year and account for roughly a quarter of the deaths caused by COVID, according to NPR. The majority of deaths were adults between the ages of 35 and 44, a number of whom are parents.  

Meanwhile, KFF reported that 25% of young adults in the US reported that they had started or increased substance use during the pandemic.

“Solitary substance use (as opposed to social use) has increased among adolescents during the pandemic, which is associated with poorer mental health,” added KFF.

Meanwhile, a recent systemic review of clinical research on the impact of social isolation and loneliness found that the subjects were “probably more likely to experience high rates of depression and most likely anxiety during and after enforced isolation ends”. 

The longer the isolation, the worse the feelings of depression were likely to be, according to the review, which drew on 61 studies – primarily in the US, China, Europe, and Australia. 

Soweto, South Africa. Poverty and crowded conditions make lockdowns doubly difficult.

Financial pressure drives stress in poorer countries

There is far less information about the impact of COVID-19 on young people in low and middle-income countries (LMIC) but the little research that does exist shows that economic stress is the most overwhelming burden for young people, and that this sparks other mental health conditions.

“The loss of employment opportunities, reduced pay, together with lockdowns and movement restrictions have influenced deterioration of the social and economic conditions of many,” according to a review on mental health and psychosocial support in sub-Saharan Africa during COVID-19.

“Many are at risk for a decline in their mental health thus highlighting the need to address the social and economic conditions that contribute to poor mental health during this time,” according to the researchers, who are from Botswana, South Africa, and the Netherlands.

“People need support to deal with fears, stress, anxieties and distress of poverty, job and income loss as well as challenges of working at home in mostly inappropriate environments,” said a Zimbabwean mental health professional who was interviewed for the research.

Research involving 957 adults living in Soweto in South Africa interviewed during the country’s hard lockdown in March 2020 “identified potent experiences of anxiety, financial insecurity, fear of infection, and rumination”. 

In October last year, the World Health Organization (WHO) Africa region identified that 37% of the 28 African countries surveyed reported that their mental health response plans had no funds 

This comes as the COVID-19 pandemic increases demand for mental health services.

Invest in mental health services, says WHO

“Isolation, loss of income, the deaths of loved ones and a barrage of information on the dangers of this new virus can stir up stress levels and trigger mental health conditions or exacerbate existing ones,” Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa, told a media briefing

“The COVID-19 pandemic has shown, more than ever, how mental health is integral to health and well-being and must be an essential part of health services during outbreaks and emergencies.”

Even before the pandemic, the region had one of the lowest mental health public expenditure rates, at less than US$ 10 cents per capita, according to the WHO.

“COVID-19 is adding to a long-simmering mental health care crisis in Africa. Leaders must urgently invest in life-saving mental health care services,” said Dr Moeti.


Image Credits: Taylor Brandon/ Unsplash, Matt-80.

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