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Health and wellbeing

Young people and COVID-19: Understanding the psychological and social impact of the pandemic

A young girl walks down the street, adjusting her face mask.

Dr Alexandra Burton is a Senior Research Fellow at University College London and a keynote speaker for Catch22’s Euromet 2021. She and her colleagues run the COVID-19 Social Study, a longitudinal survey of approximately 70,000 adults—the largest of its kind in the UK and a qualitative interview study with over 200 people.

For the past year, Dr Burton has examined how social isolation and restriction measures have affected people psychologically and socially. She notes that there have been wins and losses when it comes to mental health. Some people, particularly the young, have suffered more than others. At the same time, conversations about mental health have never been more open – both at home and in the workplace. Dr Burton shares her findings on the challenges young people have faced, and she offers her thoughts on the positive changes we can hope to see going forward.

Why might the pandemic affect our mental health and wellbeing?

  • Fear of the disease and becoming ill, particularly for those who are vulnerable, such as individuals with other health issues or living in crowded conditions
  • Worries about accessing essential services and items such as food and medications
  • Feelings of uncertainty and lack of control
  • Changes to our social lives and reduced contact with friends, family and support
  • Increased loneliness which is associated with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts

“Even though the lockdown is lifting in the UK, this feeling of uncertainty and loneliness continues and is particularly affecting young people.”
– Dr Burton, Euromet 2021

The story so far for young people

It is important to acknowledge that prior to the pandemic, young adults were more likely to have poor mental health. The pandemic seems to have exacerbated this.

“Since the easing of the first lockdown, approximately 80,000 more children and young people were referred to UK mental health services than during the same period last year. And the number of children and young people needing emergency care for their mental health has increased by 20%.”

– Statistics taken from Royal College of Psychiatrists, England

Dr Burton and the COVID-19 Social Study team have made similar observations. The study’s 7,000 participants aged between 18 to 29 have been more lonely than other age groups during the pandemic. Dr Burton has been examining groups of people in more depth, leading over 200 interviews. She finds that young people face more loneliness, depression and anxiety than other age groups. They have also been less happy and less satisfied with their lives and face ongoing disruptions to education challenges and securing and maintaining employment.

The study also measures confidence in government – “an important predictor of compliance with social distancing measures” – and Dr Burton said that this could be key to intervening in future health concerns. Young people are less confident in the government than other age groups, and with lower levels of wellbeing, they may be more likely to ignore COVID-19 guidelines to try and protect their mental health.

“Helping young people manage their mental health may be important for both their wellbeing and for general disease control overall.”

– Dr Burton, Euromet 2021

The impact of disrupted education

Dr Burton emphasises the resounding challenges of remote learning, which creates uncertainty among students regarding assessments and exams and often increases their workloads. Cancelled exams have also led to concerns among young people that their generation will be viewed less favourably when they reach the job market.

Catch22 has also noted additional challenges for students. Some young people don’t have digital devices or internet access for online learning and require personal paperwork packages delivered to their homes.

It’s not all bad: relationships and wellbeing

On a positive note, Dr Burton also explains that many young people have experienced an increase in family unity and connectedness, despite having to deal with new daily stressors that might have taken a toll on relationships. However, as Catch22 services have witnessed, she warns that we need to consider whether some young people now face anxiety about socialising outside of family life, especially after such an extended period of lockdown.

“And we shouldn’t forget about those who have actually had improved mental health staying at home and who may now be socially anxious about the lifting of lockdown.”

– Dr Burton, Euromet 2021

Young people are also recognising how lockdown has improved their wellbeing and brought positive change to their lives. They commented on their slower pace of life and said that they were able to reassess their priorities as a result. This increased self-awareness and appreciation of their mental health will be important to examine further, says Dr Burton. We should consider how this awareness can be maintained going forward and translated it into resources and services for young people and other age groups across the UK.

Practical implications of this research

While we can’t adopt a one-size-fits-all approach, the research shows that young people need ways to interact and gain mental health support, whether online or in socially distant environments. We need to help young people connect to wider social networks, including with friends, peer support, and third sector support. We can also create safe spaces for them to discuss mental health, and promote the use of protective activities offline including learning new skills, volunteering, arts and cultural activities.

We know programmes like this are effective as seen at The Hive in Camden, in Community Links’ More than Mentors programme, and in the Positive Futures programme in Suffolk. These powerful initiatives could be combined with tailored responses that meet the different circumstances and life experiences of a diverse range of young people in the UK.

“We need to listen to young people, hear what they are telling us and co-produce the solutions.”

– Dr Burton, Euromet 2021

Next steps

The COVID-19 Social Study has started its second year of data collection. Dr Burton will continue to work with Catch22’s services, offering insights on vulnerable groups. These include women who have experienced domestic abuse, those facing financial difficulties and those dependent on drugs or alcohol. She is also looking for participants who are young carers (aged 13-24) or who have experienced homelessness during the pandemic.