by Kellie Whitehead
The Covid-19 pandemic has confronted young adults with an unprecedented mental health compromise of its own. The resilience of young children throughout the past two years is well documented, faced with a lack of freedom, socialisation, mask wearing, testing and the struggles of home school, there is no doubt at all that our little ‘uns have been through the mill. Maybe it’s the benefit of hindsight, but one thing you learn fairly quickly as a parent is that the things that we worry about as carers, quite often, can pass the kids by. A crisis to us can go unnoticed to them, or even seen as an adventure or a break from the norm. In ‘normal’ times we worry about moving schools or the addition of a new sibling. The children themselves seem to sail through the challenges and changes without looking back.
But what about the young adults? Seeing this first hand, the effects on our university and college students of lockdowns, lack of the education they have signed up for (and paid handsomely for of course), essential socialisation and more is not water off a duck's back, it has and will continue to affect them hugely and the effects will be long lasting.
Deliberately doom mongering? I don’t think so. I think they have been overlooked. A student starting their course in Autumn 2019 had just over a single term of ‘normality’ before chaos descended. Moving away from home for the first time, exploring new cities, people or even countries is never easy, even for seasoned expats. Try being 18 and leaving the nest for the first real time in your life, for somewhere you have most likely only visited fleetingly once, for a look around or an admission interview. You will be living with strangers too. And that often goes one of two ways. Friends you will make for life, or those who you cannot wait to move away from as soon as accommodation contracts allow. And the courses, usually like nothing you have ever studied before, despite your naive enthusiasm. Will you enjoy it? Will it be everything you’ve dreamed of, or a huge mistake? How can you tell your parents you are unhappy or may want to make changes? What if you feel lonely and have no apparent friends to spend time with?
How soon will you be able to go home for a visit? Well, for current students, they really didn’t have to wait long did they? The first year for our 2019 intake was spent either alone or at home, and that was for those who had a home to go back to. Online learning continued for well over a year, with in person classes for my student daughter only resuming for the start of her third year. The resilience shown was phenomenal, but I also know it masked a multitude of issues and anxieties - most of which I blame on the completely abnormal conditions these students have had to work through for two years.
The idea of University being the best years of your life is not wholly untrue of course, but when you take away the usual reason it is seen as this, it paints a totally different picture. Students and their parents have paid full accommodation and tuition fees throughout, and for many, that will rankle. They simply haven’t had the education or services they have paid for, nor the opportunities to enjoy the freedoms and social opportunities that student life is best known for.
Of course, it’s even worse for overseas students and their families. Normally, I reserve ‘ not being able to travel’ as an utterly first world, privileged problem, but there is a difference in missing holidays and literally not being able to reunite with your immediate families and unable to get home amongst a raft of globally shifting restrictions, infection spikes and not to mention the expense and stress on all concerned.
Young people in particular appear to be more affected by decreased social contacts and loneliness. As we recognise we are far from out of the woods yet, with new variants and travel restrictions abound, these issues have been continuously compounded and are universal to a global student cohort, current research is proving. A survey released this month, from the US shows that the mental health of American college students does not appear to be rebounding as Covid ‘eases’ - as I type the world is gripped in the new Omicron variant, and it might feel like we are back to square one as you read this.
For reasons not immediately clear, the researchers said, large numbers of students from the University of Pittsburgh appeared to be having trouble re-establishing the norms of their individual and social lifestyles that were disrupted by the social isolation of the pandemic.
I have written often recently from my professional industry standpoint, that as a whole, consumers, families and individuals do not seem to be reverting fully back to their pre-lockdown social and shopping norms. This is one thing for a world weary 40 something parent who enjoyed a carefree youth and uni lifestyle - we’ve ‘been there’ and got the beer soaked t shirt - but the same shouldn’t be said for our teenagers and young adults who have missed out on this formative part of their transition into adulthood. It’s simply neither normal nor healthy.
Teenagers traditionally do not like talking about their mental health. Provision for mental health care may be increasing, but I urge all of us to check in on our teens. Confused, overwhelmed and given too much time to overthink and/or aimlessly scroll the highlight reel of social media. The kids really are not alright, and it’s up to us to help them where their educational establishments lag in their duty of care to students.