Happy Returns? Reflections on the Impact of COVID-19 on Young People's Mental Health

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“As we move into a new academic year, we need to look beyond a conceptualisation of mental health that sets young people apart from broader societal concerns. Forging appropriate support will necessitate a systemic approach that places young people’s societal belonging and social contexts at its core.”

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From the advent of the first lockdown onwards there has been growing evidence of the psychological impact of COVID-19 across various population groups, with cross-sectoral concern particularly focused on young people’s mental health. Research from various geographical contexts has shown that young people have experienced depressive symptoms, anxiety, eating concerns and suicidality 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 debates. As we move beyond the pandemic, this risks approaches to support being mis-targeted or based on assumptions. Moreover, the need to listen to young people themselves takes on particular urgency as schools and universities reopen and learners return for a new academic year.

One space in which young people have voiced 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 articulate their support needs.

At the University of Birmingham, we have used online ethnography to analyse these mental health focused discussions since March 2020. This has revealed the many and complex ways that the pandemic has impacted young people’s mental health, highlighting the similarities and divergences between the experiences and needs of different groups and at various timepoints during the pandemic.

Often expressed in clinical language, across social media young people have written candidly of “feeling depressed” or “anxious”, undertaking acts of self-harm, and being suicidal. Some with a history of suicidal thoughts have described how these increased, and others have recounted experiencing feeling suicidal for the first time. Young people have supported one another through these experiences in the absence of formal support and have also intricately discussed causality.

Young people have talked of school closures and the difficulties of online education, citing these as causes of anxiety, depression and suicidality. They have also discussed fraught family environments and a sense of entrapment. Others have described the loneliness of being away from peers, and its contribution to new experiences of depression. But, many young people have also described being away from school as aiding their mental health, with descriptions of “anxiety returning” as institutions reopened. This highlights the diverging experiences that young people have of school, as it may not always feel like a safe space.

In turn, many young people have poignantly articulated a sense of lost opportunity, feeling that the pandemic has “stolen” important events like graduation and also curtailed future possibilities. Economic concerns have been widely discussed, with anxiety around their own job prospects woven through bleak conversations about how long it may take society to recover economically.

It is also notable that some young people have turned to social media to voice their fear of catching and transmitting the virus. Many have articulated their anxiety at the impact of COVID-19 on others, describing a palpable fear of being the person who might give it to vulnerable relatives. This is particularly key as we now go into a new academic year and return to face-to-face teaching in universities and schools. The removal of infection control measures has caused some anxiety and fear, with young people concerned for their own safety and, more often, for that of others.

As such, living through COVID-19 has had a complex and varying psychological impact on young people. Although some have seen an improvement in their wellbeing away from stressors such as school, the pandemic has also both exacerbated previous mental health challenges and engendered new ones.

Yet, this finding needs to be approached with caution; it is striking that social media conversations have focused as much on the welfare of others and societal concerns as on individual challenges. Many young people, for example, have described experiencing depression at isolation whilst also understanding the need for virus control measures and expressing anxiety at their removal. The social belonging that such an intertwining demonstrates is key to how we need to support young people as we come out of the pandemic.

To date, public and political discourses in the UK have tended to focus on specific singular causes of young people’s poorer mental health through COVID-19, such as school closures. This has led to calls to allow the “young” or the “healthy” freedom or “normality” that has not always been in line with wider societal events. Whilst well-intentioned, this approach belies the complexity and socially connected nature of young people’s experiences during the pandemic and risks enforcing a kind of politicised unbelonging that does more harm than good.

Instead, as we move out of the pandemic and into a new academic year, it is necessary to look beyond a conceptualisation of their mental health that sets young people apart from broader societal concerns. Instead, creating hope through action and forging appropriate support will necessitate a systemic approach that places young people’s societal belonging and social contexts at its core.

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

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