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Young people are being mentally scarred by this pandemic – and the legacy could last a lifetime

Research paints a picture of rapidly declining mental health. There is every chance that the primary symptoms young people are experiencing now could lead to more complex mental health problems over time

Owen O'Kane
Monday 18 May 2020 17:48 BST
Mara Wilson opens up about her mental health for Okay To Say

I count myself lucky to work in a profession that I’m passionate about. But there’s a lot that has to go right to make something like that happen – particularly when you’re starting out – and much of it is not necessarily within our control. Having a decent work ethic is one thing, but access to education, training and job opportunities at just the right time is quite another.

One of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic is that it has pulled the rug out from under the feet of our young people, many of whom are only part way through their education, or just starting their working lives. Their opportunities to learn, to train and to work have taken an unprecedented hit, and they face the daunting prospect of trying to start their careers during what will probably prove to be the deepest recession in living memory.

It’s not going to be easy to overcome these challenges – and young people know it. The world in which we live has changed so quickly. For many young people, this will lead to a host of psychological adjustment disorders and, at worst, trauma-like responses.

New research published by The Prince’s Trust and YouGov heard directly from 16- to 25-year olds living through lockdown. It found that a staggering 43 per cent of young people across the UK are feeling increased levels of anxiety, with fears about their future employment prospects weighing heavily on their minds. The Young People in Lockdown report also revealed that 32 per cent are “overwhelmed” by feelings of panic and anxiety on a daily basis.

Clinically, these statistics are significant: they paint a picture of young people’s declining mental health. There is every chance that the primary mental health symptoms they are experiencing now could lead to more complex mental health problems over time without adequate support. At times of crisis, interventions and support are crucial to prevent further deterioration.

The risks to society of ignoring the early warning signs are significant. Spiralling mental health issues can lead to everything from excessive alcohol, drugs or other substance abuse, to an increase in physical health problems, a risk of unsociable behaviours and even increased crime. The potential knock-on effect to family units, as well as wider communities and economies, is something that should not be overlooked, and the longer-term strain on services providing support doesn’t bear thinking about.

I strongly suspect a tsunami of mental health issues will emerge when some degree of normality returns. This is often the case after traumatic life experiences; the real impact is often seen later. But the good news is we do have an opportunity to intervene now.

Solving the unemployment puzzle will be crucial in helping young people to bounce back from this crisis, before any lasting damage is done to their wellbeing. We know from research that young people struggling with mental health issues function far better when they’re working, because they have a sense of purpose, independence and direction. The risk of rising unemployment is a significant red flag and has the potential to hold them back for years to come.

It’s imperative to get as much support in place now as possible to help contain the problem, while recognising that additional help will be needed when the lockdown is over.

The Prince’s Trust is speaking to young people all over the country every day to listen to their concerns and provide support online and over the phone during this difficult time. The charity is there to mentor and give wellbeing support, to help those who are missing school and college to continue their learning, and to help those who are unemployed to build their skills and find work. It is exactly this kind of support that will help to lift young people out of crisis, giving them the practical tools and optimism to cope both now and in the longer term.

They need and deserve, just as my generation did at that age, the chance to learn, to work and to be able to support themselves and their families.

If we get this right, the benefits to their mental health will be felt in tandem, and everyone benefits. That’s why The Prince’s Trust has also set up an emergency Young People Relief Fund, which is accepting donations from individuals and businesses, to help make that work possible. Young people desperately need support to overcome the challenges they’re facing, both during this emergency and on the other side.

The theme of Mental Health Awareness Week this year is kindness. It couldn’t be more apt. Our young people represent our future and more than ever they need our help, our kindness. We owe it to them, not to let them down.

Owen O’Kane is a psychotherapist, author and former NHS clinical lead for mental health. His new book, ‘Ten Times Happier: How to let go of what’s holding you back’​, is out now

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