COVID-19 lockdowns taking a heavy toll on the mental health of young people



Both the mental health effects and damage done to the education of young people by repeated lockdowns across the world have been points of concern for a number of governments, but the two have not often been combined in public discourse. However, Dr. Tali Shenfield, Clinical Director of Toronto’s Advanced Psychology Services Center, believes that the threat to the mental health of young people could be one of the most serious and lasting effects of the pandemic period.

Though young people face only a small risk of becoming ill with COVID-19, research indicates that they’re disproportionately affected by public health measures intended to curb the spread of the virus. As early as May 2020, the UN warned that today’s youth could become a “lockdown generation” as a result of experiencing extreme social, educational, and professional disruption during pivotal points in their lives. With the second wave now in full force, fresh lockdowns are further threatening the mental health of children, adolescents, and young adults. Without better support, experts fear that young people will continue to carry a heavy psychological burden long after the pandemic is over.

Rates of Anxiety, Depression Rising

Young people were already experiencing historically high levels of anxiety and depression before the pandemic began. Between the years 2013 and 2018, the rate of adolescent depression rose by 63%. During the first COVID-19 lockdown, this troubling trend rapidly accelerated: surveys revealed that nearly a third of American children under 17 experienced an increase in depressive feelings during the spring of 2020, while half reported feeling more uncertain about the future. Researchers observed similar changes among children and adolescents in China, Italy, and Spain.

Adults under the age of 30 were also particularly hard-hit by the first wave of pandemic restrictions: According to a study conducted by the University of Bristol, anxiety rates doubled in people aged 27-29 during the first COVID-19 lockdown. Adults under 30 experienced the highest increase in suicidal thinking in the same period, with rates of suicidal ideation rising from 12.5% to 14% in people aged 18-29. For many of the young adults surveyed, these mental health challenges persisted into the summer, despite a loosening of restrictions.

Why Lockdowns Are Especially Hard on Young People

Children, teens, and young adults have a higher need for structure and in-person socialization than older adults. Kids learn vital social skills by physically interacting with one another, including sharing, cooperation, respect, loyalty, and empathy. Child psychologist Dr. Tali Shenfield believes that most kids can bounce back from short periods of isolation; however, enduring multiple lockdowns could force them to miss key developmental milestones. She also worries that this could lead to a permanent reduction in social competence.

Though isolation from peers is able to harm children as young as three, lockdowns are particularly devastating for adolescents and pre-adolescents. According to Dr. Shenfield, older children must break away from their parents and socialize in peer groups to initiate the process of individualization. Teens need to spend time away from home to become independent, figure out who they are, and forge deeper peer relationships. Adolescents simply can’t properly learn and practice these skills via Zoom or Skype.


Compounding these difficulties, adolescents rely heavily on their peers for a sense of safety. After age 10, kids become less likely to benefit from the security of being at home with parents, which leaves them more vulnerable to pandemic-related anxiety. Again, virtual socialization can’t fully compensate for this deficit: social media is already a proven contributor to anxiety, depression, loneliness, and self-esteem problems among teens and preteens. Spending more time online could potentially worsen teens’ sense of isolation rather than making it better.

In addition to causing social problems, lockdowns have had a detrimental effect on learning for kids of all age groups. Without the structure afforded by classroom learning, many students feel rudderless and academically unmotivated. At the same time, the quality of their education is declining: multiple studies have demonstrated an association between remote learning and reduced overall learning time. By some estimates, lockdowns have already created a loss of 0.6 years of learning time, with students in poverty and special needs students facing the steepest losses of all. Receiving less instructional time is directly correlated with lower levels of achievement.

Economically disadvantaged children are at particular risk of learning loss because they often have inadequate access to remote learning tools and parental instruction time. Likewise, many poor children rely on schools to provide them with nutritious meals, connect them with mental health and social services, and identify learning problems. They’re also more vulnerable to the effects of recession: according to the World Bank, economic uncertainty will contribute to an additional seven million dropouts before the pandemic is over.

Teens and young adults who have already entered the workforce also face unique difficulties during lockdowns. Young adults are highly reliant on employment in the service industry, for example. They’re more likely to live alone in cramped accommodations than middle-aged adults, and they typically have fewer assets to draw on during emergencies. These factors greatly exacerbate the emotional and financial stresses of lockdown.

The Potential Long-Term Consequences of COVID-19

Globally, pandemic-related school closures alone are expected to account for $10 trillion in lost earnings. Yet it is less clear how the pandemic (and subsequent public health restrictions) will affect the health of an entire generation of young people. Because COVID-19 is such an unprecedented situation, there’s little research to draw on when assessing the long-term physical and mental effects of lockdowns. However, looking at past disasters and pandemics may provide some insight into the future repercussions of COVID-19.

Historically, pandemics, national emergencies, and economic recessions led to a sustained decline in mental health. Researchers observed increased rates of PTSD and depression after the SARS outbreak of 2003, for example. People affected by the Chernobyl disaster and Hurricane Katrina experienced similar effects. Following the Great Recession of 2008, global populations experienced multiple physical and mental health problems, including a rise in chronic disease risk factors, higher suicide rates, psychological distress, and lower fertility levels. We also know that childhood depression – one of the most significant consequences of COVID-19 – is tied to an increased lifetime risk of 66 diseases and premature death.

Many experts feel that today’s young people are in an especially precarious position because they’ve already endured multiple crises. Members of “Generation Z” (those born between 1997-2012) grew up in the shadow of the Great Recession, climate change, terrorism, and the housing crisis. As such, they already struggle with grave concerns about the future. Some researchers worry that adding COVID-19 to their existing mental health burden may incite a “massive existential crisis” of hopelessness.

How to Help Young People Cope with the Negative Effects of Lockdown

Ideally, young people’s needs should be reflected in our response to COVID-19 at a policy level. For those looking to help children and young adults at home, however, the interventions below can support better mental health:

– Provide access to mental health care.

The number of children and adolescents receiving specialized psychiatric care has declined significantly over the course of the pandemic. Though these services are still available in many areas, parents have been reticent to allow their children to attend in-person therapy due to perceived health risks.

While such decisions are well-intentioned, available evidence shows that the benefits of attending in-person therapy far outweigh the risks for young people. Unlike adults, children have a hard time staying engaged with telehealth services; they quickly become distracted and inattentive, which reduces the effectiveness of therapy. For adolescents, in-person therapy offers a necessary sense of privacy and a break from the home environment.

– When possible, choose in-person learning.

Opting for in-person learning will improve the quality of your child’s education and create opportunities for safe socialization. Allowing your child to go back to school will also help prevent parenting burnout by relieving you of educational duties.

– Encourage kids and teens to remain physically active.

A September 2020 photo shows British mothers social-distancing with their young children at a park in London. EPA-EFE//ANDY RAIN

One of the most detrimental effects of excess screen time is a reduction in physical activity. Not only is a lack of exercise bad for your child’s physical health, it increases his (or her) risk of insomnia, depression, and anxiety. Experts recommend that children between the ages of 6-17 get at least one hour of physical activity per day to counter the effects of COVID-related anxiety. If possible, allow your child to engage in socially-distanced outdoor activities to meet some of his (or her) need for exercise and peer interaction.

– Help your child or teen adjust to socializing safely when restrictions are lifted.

Some young people may struggle to socialize when restrictions are lifted because they’ve learned to associate isolation with feelings of security. However, while this sense of detachment often reduces anxiety in the short-term, it increases the risk of loneliness and mental health problems over the long-term. Parents should therefore help their children slowly expand their social networks when it’s safe to do so.

Though the COVID-19 pandemic has placed enormous strain on families, there’s a light at the end of the tunnel: with several vaccines becoming available in 2021, access to in-person learning and opportunities for socialization will almost certainly improve. In the meantime, we can help young people rise above this crisis by making their voices heard and giving them appropriate mental health support.


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