For 17-year-old Liora, the lightness and hope she felt at the beginning of the year sometimes feels like a distant memory. Trips to the beach and cinema, shopping with friends and the promise of face-to-face school for her final exams. “It felt almost normal,” she says. It’s a far cry from today, months into lockdown, and that lightness of early 2021 transformed into a heavy and uncertain load.
COVID-19 has been hard for everyone, there is no doubt about it – but we know that our young people are paying a particularly high price.
Even before the pandemic, adolescence was an especially vulnerable time for mental health. Many adults will remember the beautiful agony of adolescence. The energy and lightness of youth; the joy of friendships, the discovery of self, the endless possibilities for the future – all laced with the often-urgent need to fit in, and the uncertainty and self-doubt that commonly plagues the teenage years.
It’s a time of incredible possibility and exquisite vulnerability. Coupled with rapid neurological, social and psychological development and the inevitable stressors of school, relationships, social media and body image, it’s hardly surprising that adolescence should be the peak period of onset for mental health problems. Pre-pandemic, one in four young people experienced a diagnosable mental illness each year (ABS National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing). Given this, parents are understandably alarmed at the thought of how youth mental health may have worsened under COVID-19.
The potent combination of disconnection, boredom, uncertainty and hopelessness has left many of us languishing. For young people, the disruption to school and routine, inability to connect with friends, and the loss of long-awaited rites of passage such as graduations and gap-year travels are an incredible challenge. The impacts are significant, and the full extent of what COVID-19 means for youth wellbeing, is yet to be understood.
But in amongst this (valid and understandable) concern, are we underestimating the strength of our young people? In our haste to respond to the daily reports of ‘lost generations’ and ‘shadow pandemics’, do we risk over-pathologising what is, for most young people, an entirely normal response to an entirely abnormal situation – and underestimating the role that parents, families, schools and communities have to play in supporting them?
This in no way seeks to minimise or deny the very real challenges that many young people and their families have experienced since the beginning of the pandemic (and indeed, before). The impact of eating disorders has grown substantially; Victoria’s Royal Children’s Hospital has seen an increase in mental health admissions; and vigilance to selfharm and suicidal ideation is real and understandable.
It is an incredibly difficult time, and for most of us, unlike anything we have ever gone through before. However, we must not lose sight of the bigger picture. The extraordinary resilience and adaptability of young people has never been more evident than in the past 18 months – and for all of its challenges, COVID-19 has presented some opportunities as well.
A Headspace survey revealed a majority of young people felt more empathy and compassion towards others as a result of the pandemic, and greater levels of gratitude. Other benefits included increased opportunities to connect with family, more time for hobbies, and improvements to physical health through greater levels of activity. Young people overwhelmingly reported pro-actively engaging in a multitude of self-care strategies to help cope with the impacts of COVID-19 – and astoundingly, almost a third reported experiencing only positive impacts as a result of the pandemic.
Adolescence has always been a bumpy ride and parents are right to be concerned – but in responding to the impacts of the pandemic, we ourselves must hold the same sense of perspective and hope that we seek for our young people.
We need take only a brief look at history to see that humans are, on the whole, enormously resilient. Victoria’s Chief Psychiatrist Neil Coventry said in September, “We will use our normal resources, our strengths, our sense of resilience in the support that we have around us from our family, loved ones and friends.”
Professor Sharon Goldfeld, paediatrician and director at Jewish Care (Victoria), agrees. “It has been an exceptionally difficult time, and that’s especially true for young people – but we also know that children and adolescents have an incredible ability to adapt and grow in the face of challenges. The strength they have shown over the past 18 months is testament to this.”
And while it is true that most mental illness begins in adolescence, this does not mean that most adolescents experience mental illness. We must, of course, be alert to the signs that young people are really struggling, and connect them to help if they are – which can, unfortunately, be easier said than done right now – but we must also remember that feelings of distress, such as worry, frustration and sadness, are human and entirely normal right now.
For some of us, the greatest challenge may lie in sitting with the discomfort of not being able to make things better for our kids – but in this adversity lies the opportunity for learning: the ability to express and cope with uncomfortable feelings, and to navigate life’s unexpected turns.
What if this generation, rather than being the lost generation, emerges as the resilient generation? A group of diamonds, strengthened by the collective fire of the past 18 months, with an extraordinary capacity to cope and adapt, of whom we – and they – can feel immensely proud?
“It’s definitely been hard, but it’s not all bad,” says Liora. “In some ways it’s been kind of a blessing in disguise. It’s been nice to slow down and connect with my family. I also feel inspired by the community and really proud of what myself and others my age have been through.
Right now, the kids are not alright – but for the most part, they will be. The challenges are real, but there is much to be hopeful for. A return to school is on the horizon, offering the much-needed opportunity for children to connect and play. The quest to understand the impacts of COVID presents the opportunity to better examine and unpack the mental health needs of young people.
And most of all, the collective power of parents, families and communities, ready to catch our youngsters when they fall.
Cassie Barrett is program manager for Healthy Communities at Jewish Care (Victoria). At 8pm on Tuesday, October 12, Jewish Care (Victoria) is running an information session exploring how we can best support children through the mental health impacts of the pandemic. To register, visit thekidsarenotalright.eventbrite.com.au