The Mental Health Impact of the coronavirus on Young People
By Amreen Pathan
Listing the victims of the coronavirus (COVID-19) is no mean feat. Not just because it is qualitative, ramifications have been immensely grim. But also because its tally is endless with the colossal 2,341,145 lives lost to the pandemic; the physical health complications; dispossessed jobs; the hospitality industry held hostage and more. All of the above stand fallen as victims of this virus, the loss of their presence so physical and tangible that the infiltration of this virus within the existence of each fraction above is undeniable.
Mental health – the stats
However, the virus has not spared mental health either. Not as easily quantifiable, nor physical, nor tangible as the above, but just as much a victim to count. Bearing in mind the unprecedented nature of the virus, it is completely natural for young people to be struggling to maintain their mental health. Since the start of the pandemic, a rising proportion of parents are reporting significant emotional, behavioural and concentration difficulties in their children under the age of 10. Further, a study by the Education Policy Institute and the Prince’s trust has recommended urgent post-coronavirus funds for school to tackle mental health decline, which highlights genuine fears about the pandemic exacerbating existing mental health issues and worsening wellbeing among teenagers.
Mental health – the reality
However, as important and well-intentioned such reports are, they cannot truly capture how children must feel, isolated from meaningful relationships at school with friends and teachers and ostracised from their physical places of exploration and education. So how exactly has the coronavirus created a tsunami of mental health problems amongst the younger generation?
Fears about the virus, social isolation, loss of routine and structure and in some cases, bereavement, all have to varying degrees, affected the mental health of pupils. Upon initiating a discussion about the mental health impact of the coronavirus on young people on a teacher’s Facebook group, some parents described their children of primary and secondary ages as shadows of their former selves, from boisterous, confident and cheeky, to miserable, sleepy and demotivated. Teachers too noted the disengagement of certain age groups, namely 14-16 years, whilst teaching online.
Although online educational provisions have been implemented across the UK, learning via a screen is frankly not that easy. There is the issue of navigating a sea of technology which cannot be fun for pupils not wholly tech savvy or with internet connections weak as sin or for those using mobile phones as their learning tool. Not only is this a factor for even greater disparity between advantaged and disadvantaged pupils in progression within education, but it means young people have been left vulnerable to the effects of isolation and lack of physical interaction. This goes against the grain of adolescent impulse as stated by Dr Maria Loades, a clinical psychologist at the University of Bath who studies the effect of social isolation in young people. This might explain the disengagement and lack of motivation of pupils, particularly those close to entering adulthood amidst a backdrop of uncertainty, narrowed prospects and restricted freedoms.
Interestingly however, conversations with other teachers as well as personal experience has revealed that some of the less interactive and reserved pupils have really started to find their voices as evident by their increased engagement level both verbally and via the chat functions of whatever conferencing software schools are using. This might point to growing confidences as a result of not having to silently compete for attention with louder and less bashful peers. With the future of education looking uncertain, it will be interesting to see such benefits of remote and/or blended learning if any on at least some proportion of the pupil population.
Diet and dopamine
For those pupils who struggle with conventional school, are shy or bullied, staying home must certainly be a positive relief. This aside though, the Mental Health of Children and Young People survey conducted by NHS Digital found a quarter of children and young people suffering from disrupted sleep thus keeping the wheels of demoralisation and energy slumps spinning relentlessly. Physical exercise is said to release dopamine and serotonin, which in turn can improve mood. Unfortunately, some children are now also deprived of this, further disadvantaging those who relied on P.E in school as their sole medium of physical activity. The NSPCC has also noted the increase in the development of eating disorders such as binge eating and bulimia with existing disorders either intensified or relapsed. Pre-pandemic, multiple studies have found strong links between intensive social media use and increased risk for depression, anxiety, loneliness, self-harm and even suicidal thoughts. Now we can only be left to imagine what reliance on such platforms, mid-pandemic, may cause in children and young people, in the absence of support networks and human contact in relation to the above mental health issues.
The mental health impact of the coronavirus thus far has certainly been pronounced. Can the government do enough to assist the NHS, schools, charities and relevant organisations in supporting young children and people with their mental health? Will the government do enough? Or will this pandemic leave behind a different pandemic in its wake? Perhaps this is something only time will tell.
 Correct at time of writing