The psychological strains of COVID-19

How ongoing restrictions are taking a toll on the mental health of young people.

Writer: Pauline Münchenberg
Editor: Priyanka Peres
Artist: Sophie Maho Chan

Shops, coffee houses and bars are closed; it is forbidden to meet friends and family; people are working and studying from home; many are feeling overwhelmed, anxious, lonely and stressed as society is struggling in its fight against a new virus. What sounds like a dark science fiction movie has become our sad reality.

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has taken a heavy toll on many of us. While restrictions focus on controlling the spread of the virus by protecting the most vulnerable, the number of people suffering from mental health problems has increased. Many are facing financial hardships or an existential crisis, questioning their place in life. Furthermore, a rise in domestic violence and child abuse has been observed: EU states have reported a 60% increase in emergency calls about domestic violence. Children and young adults in particular are struggling with ongoing social isolation, loneliness, and emotional distress, exacerbated by relentless monotony and boredom. In addition, the distribution of fake news across social media creates more fear. This has been painfully clear in the latest concerns over the AstraZeneca vaccine in many European countries, where misinformation, politics and vaccine skepticism have spread panic and hysteria across the continent. Furthermore, fears about the future and poor job prospects make this a time of anxiety for many young people. 

In addition to health experts, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned about the pandemic’s mental health and psychosocial consequences. Due to self-isolation, an increase in depression, anxiety, substance abuse, sleeping problems and self-harm behaviour has been observed, as humans are social beings and have a basic need for social contact. Children all over the world are now experiencing loneliness and fear, compounded by high levels of parental stress and limited coping strategies. Those with pre-existing mental or physical health conditions or facing child or domestic abuse are particularly vulnerable to experiencing psychiatric symptoms. For example, studies in the UK, Ireland and the US have shown an increase in depression and trauma symptoms and generalised anxiety disorders during the pandemic, compared to before. Amongst other predictors, young age and female gender were associated with higher anxiety and depression rates. A meta-analysis conducted during an early stage of the pandemic in 2020 even suggested a pooled prevalence of depression that was seven times higher compared to 2017 in the overall population. These findings highlight the impact that COVID-19 has had on mental health.

The origin of most mental health disorders can be found in childhood or adolescence, as it marks an especially sensitive developmental period. A systematic review by the Great Ormond Street Hospital NHS Foundation Trust and UCL Great Ormond Street Institute of Child Health has shown that social isolation and loneliness increase the risk of depression in children and adolescents, while the duration of loneliness, rather than the intensity, is strongly correlated with symptoms of poor mental health. Therefore, the COVID-19 pandemic may not only worsen existing mental health issues, but might also lead to more cases of ill health in children and adolescents.

As it turns out, one of the biggest barriers to solving this issue is the lack of mental health services. Schools and universities that usually provide these services are or have been closed, so getting access to care is much more difficult. Additionally, the abrupt disruption of services likely worsen mental health conditions. This is particularly true for disadvantaged groups who rely primarily on the care available in educational settings.

It is a time of uncertainty for everyone and each age group is facing its own unique challenges. While the issues of adults and the elderly are certainly important, it is crucial to remember that minors are also facing many challenges, particularly related to mental health. Current guidelines from the WHO advise us to take extra care of those in need, ourselves, and our loved ones. There is an urgent need to provide more mental health services: emotional and social support are key. Promising first steps in this direction include the rollout of digital healthcare services, so-called tele-health, such as online therapy, video consultations and mobile health apps. Furthermore, promoting exercise and mindfulness helps to improve psychological wellbeing and stress. Overall, the Government needs to focus more on the psychological strain of the pandemic and provide better access to treatment for those who require it. Corporations and employers can also play their part by offering mental health support strategies like yoga during lunchtime and by being flexible regarding the needs of their employees.

It is important to remember that it is okay not to be okay. And, crucially, everyone should be able to get help when needed. 

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