Pandemic and mental health: the negative effects for youth

The COVID-19 pandemic had a profound impact on the lives of people around the world, particularly young people. In addition to the physical health risks, the pandemic has had a significant impact on the mental health of children, adolescents and young adults. The isolation, uncertainty and disruption of routines caused by the pandemic led to a range of psychological problems, including anxiety, depression and stress.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictive measures to contain the infection have revolutionised the lives of these young people, and for some time to come, a distortion/alteration of habits, rhythms, and living arrangements will continue to be necessary. The absence of school, recreational, leisure and sports activities has forced thousands of boys and girls to stay at home, with repercussions that are still difficult to quantify. In addition, there has been a reduction in outpatient and counselling activities for children with chronic or acute non-COVID-19 illnesses (Praticò, 2020).

Already in the 1960s-1970s, psychologist E. Erikson pointed out that the construction of identity in childhood is influenced by psychosocial factors such as family habits and repetitive behaviour, which sanction belonging and sharing and help to go through the developmental stages and related problems in a ‘healthy’ manner (Cerniglia L, Cimino S, Ammaniti M, 2020).  The pandemic has ‘blown up’ pre-established rules and habitual patterns. Quarantine and social distancing – protective measures against the covid 19 pandemic – represented potential sources of stress for children, precisely due to the continuation of sudden and prolonged changes in the daily rhythms of family and school life (loss of routines, reduction of educational and play/exploratory opportunities outdoors, etc.) and the ‘breathing’ of a climate of anxiety/fear and uncertainty for the future (Sansavini A, Trombini E, Guarini A, 2020).

One of the most significant psychological impacts of the pandemic on young people is the increased sense of isolation and loneliness. The social distancing measures taken to prevent the spread of the virus have led many young people to be cut off from their usual social support networks, such as friends, family and teachers. This has led to increased feelings of loneliness, which can contribute to depression, anxiety and other mental health problems.

Several international studies have addressed this issue. For example, a Chinese study (Xinyan Xie et al, 2020) carried out in Wuhan, Hubei province – epicentre of the pandemic – in the first four months of last year, found 22% more depressive symptoms and 18.9% more anxious symptoms in primary and secondary school students following the interruption of school attendance, outdoor activities and social contact with peers, highlighting the ‘traumatic power’ of a health emergency.

Another recent report (RAISING CANADA 2020), by an NGO, the University of Calgary’s public health department and the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute, collected and systematised the results of various Canadian surveys over the past two years: 57 per cent of 15-17 year olds rated their mental health as ‘slightly worse’ or ‘much worse’ than before social distancing, while 17-24 year olds rated their mental health as ‘excellent’ or ‘very good’ to the extent of 20 per cent less than in 2018; 70 per cent of 10-17 year olds report feeling ‘mostly and intensely’ bored and lonely. The report also investigated the educational, welfare, social and economic impacts on children and young people of worsening family working and housing conditions, which go in the predictable direction of reinforcing inequalities.

To address these challenges, it is important that young people prioritise their mental health and seek support from their families, friends and mental health professionals. This may involve seeking online therapy, practising mindfulness and self-care, and engaging in activities that bring joy and a sense of connection, such as hobbies or virtual social events.

It is also important that parents, educators and policy makers prioritise the mental health needs of young people and provide resources and support to address the psychological impacts of the pandemic. This may include investing in mental health services, providing additional support for families experiencing financial stress, and working to create opportunities for social connection and engagement in safe and responsible ways.

In the wake of these recommendations, the World Economic Forum has indicated three ways in which we can protect – collectively and communally – children, adolescents and their families from the potentially devastating psychological impact of the pandemic:

  1. Invest publicly and privately in services and programmes to prevent/promote/care for the mental and psycho-social health of children and adolescents, with a ‘life-cycle’ approach, particularly in socially and economically deprived settings
  2. Implement community-based policies, programmes and services ‘calibrated’ to the specific needs of children and adolescents in times of the covid-19 pandemic. UNICEF, WEForum and various partners are working to adapt and integrate psychosocial support and mental health promotion programmes in many ways (distance education ‘accessible’ to all children who cannot go to school, training of health workers for early detection of signs of mental risk in ‘vulnerable’ children, information technology to directly reach children in need of support and counselling, etc.), and provide guidance to governments for their implementation.
  3. Taking the needs of children and adolescents into account in any debate/decision to adopt restrictive measures: it is necessary to listen directly to the children in order to plan programmes and services that are really useful. The slogan of the younger generation: “Not for us, but with us”.

Looking at young adults, the testimony of a university student at the University of Palermo stands out: ‘the pandemic had a huge impact on my life. I suddenly found myself attending lectures from a distance and, although my university did an incredible job in adapting to the situation, it was not easy. I found it difficult to stay focused and motivated, mainly because I missed the routine and social interaction I had when attending classes in person. In addition, I missed my favourite extracurricular activity due to the restrictions on group activities, and I felt isolated and alone. I also noticed that my mental health deteriorated during this period and I had to make a greater effort to take care of myself. However, I learnt to find ways to adapt to the situation and realised how important it is to have a good support network during these difficult times’.

In conclusion, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on young people’s mental health and it is important to give their wellbeing the right importance and support. The definition and implementation of interventions must take into account existing scientific evidence and good practice, and take place in a collaborative network between health, educational, social, etc. institutions and professionals involved in the frontline education, care and treatment of children and adolescents, involving families and children themselves in a participatory way so that they develop/strengthen their resilient resources (ISS, 2020).

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Andrea D. Praticò. COVID-19 pandemic for Pediatric Health Care: disadvantages and opportunities. Pediatric Research, 2020

Luca Cerniglia, Silvia Cimino, Massimo Ammaniti. L’impatto del periodo di isolamento legato al Covid-19 nello sviluppo psicologico infantile. Psicologia clinica dello sviluppo, 2 agosto 2020, pp. 187-190

Alessandra Sansavini, Elena Trombini, Annalisa Guarini. Genitori e bambini 0-6 anni durante l’emergenza Covid-19: problematiche, nuove sfide e iniziative di supporto psico-educativo. Psicologia clinica dello sviluppo 2/agosto 2020, pp. 195-200

Xinyan Xie, Qi Xue, Yu Zhou, et al. Mental Health Status Among Children in Home Confinement During the Coronavirus Disease 2019 Outbreak in Hubei Province, China. JAMA Pediatr. 2020;174(9):898-900. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2020.1619

RAISING CANADA 2020. TOP 10 threats to childhood in Canada and the impact of covid-19. Final Report. September 2020

WORLD ECONOMIC FORUM. 3 ways to protect your mental health during – and after – COVID-19 How to talk to your children about coronavirus

Gruppo di lavoro ISS Salute mentale ed emergenza COVID-19. Indicazioni ad interim per un appropriato sostegno della salute mentale nei minori di età durante la pandemia COVID-19. Versione del 31 maggio 2020. Roma: Istituto Superiore di Sanità; 2020.


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