The hidden health crisis: the dramatic impact of COVID-19 on young people’s mental health

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

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Over half of young people across the globe are showing signs of depression and anxiety since the COVID-19 pandemic began. This is according to a survey of over 12,500 young people in 112 countries conducted by the European Youth Forum with the ILO and other partners.

The European Youth Forum is the platform organisation advocating for youth rights in Europe.

As countries are plunging into a second, and in some cases, third wave of the pandemic, the true extent of its impacts is becoming more and more apparent. What we are facing is not just dangerous to our physical health, but is much more far-reaching.

Fear, worry and stress are emotions that we have likely all felt in recent months, undoubtedly affecting our mental health. For young people, however, the mental health crisis has been building for a long time. Even before the pandemic, the second leading cause of death among youth was suicide, according to the WHO. Given today’s challenges we can’t help but wonder: are young people headed towards a wellbeing crisis?

Education is a core part of a young person’s life. While many countries have endeavoured to prioritise schooling, the disruption to young people’s learning has been significant. As a result, just over half of those in education anticipate that their studies will be delayed. It’s no wonder that young people’s mental health is wavering as they face the prospect of a longer and more difficult transition from education to employment.

Those already in the labour market face significant pressure too. One in every six young people have seen their work come to a halt as a result of the pandemic, and others have had their work hours reduced.  This has inevitably affected young people’s income and many face the threat of losing their accommodation as a result.

Let’s not forget the stress faced by the thousands of young people working in retail and food industries. They are risking their own health while allowing the rest of us to continue to buy our groceries or get our takeaway dinner. These young workers are often employed under precarious, low-wage contracts. Many are unentitled to paid sick leave, and are faced with a social welfare system that won’t support them if they need to take time off because of their age or level of work experience.

As our entire lives, including work and education, move into the digital sphere, our work-life balance is fast becoming a casualty of these new arrangements. In that context, young people face specific risk. They are more susceptible to the impacts of constant connectivity and the more time a young person spends on their phone, the more likely they are to report symptoms of depression.

We also need to recognise other stresses brought on by merging our private lives with our professional ones. The closure of child care facilities means young women are having to take on more domestic activities in addition to doing their jobs. It’s no surprise then that they are reporting the lowest levels of mental wellbeing. This pandemic is a genuine threat to workers’ rights and wellbeing.

To address these issues, governments need to ensure a good work-life balance is possible even in current circumstances. These challenges can partly be mitigated through policies such as the right to disconnect, strong regulation on the privacy of workers, and restrictions on the use of digital tools aimed at the surveillance and monitoring of workers. Most crucially, however, tackling the rise in wellbeing issues among youth is impossible without investment in universal, free access to youth-friendly mental-health care, including online services adapted to today’s circumstances.

But beyond these measures, a wider issue needs to be addressed. Our survey finds that nearly 40% of young people across the globe report being uncertain about their future. We need to bring more stability and security back into young people’s lives. We will not be able to turn the tide on the rise in anxiety and depression among youth until we tackle precarity and the threat of poverty, two of its biggest stressors.

Unfortunately, policy measures aimed at addressing the impacts of the crisis are failing to reach young people facing these challenges. Age-based discrimination in access to benefits means that in many EU countries young people who need financial support are falling through the gaps. In fact, the results of our survey show that COVID-19 response measures are much more likely to reach young people who remained in employment since the onset of the pandemic, rather than those who are most vulnerable.

As we continue to navigate this crisis, policy-makers must take note: failing to tackle the inequality and disadvantage driving this wellbeing crisis not only violates young people’s rights, it causes them to lose trust in political institutions. Populism and nationalism is the potential price to pay for failing to support an entire generation.

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