How COVID-19 has affected young people’s mental health

Lucy Maudsley has been in lockdown for most of her pregnancy.

There’s no time like the present and, in many respects, there’s no time like your twenties. First job, getting hitched, having a baby – all of these and more often happen before we hit 30. But this year, those seminal milestones aren’t what they used to be. And many young people are suffering as a consequence.

By Mikaela Turner

There are many stages to our lives, but one is the primary focus of our nostalgia. The time when we could do what we wanted, when we wanted. When freedom seemed endless and opportunities were unlimited. That all-too-brief window between total dependency and incredible responsibility. Young adulthood.

When you’re young, time doesn’t feel like a luxury, but a standard. You can travel the world, go to university, switch degrees, stay out all night, hike a mountain, whatever takes your fancy. There are no school-drop offs, no mortgages, no back problems.

It’s a time that also comes with incredible change and major milestones – graduations, weddings, first full-time jobs, babies. And milestones are celebrated for good reason, they generally indicate the beginning of a new chapter. They are the markers that guide a person’s life. They are what we remember when we grow up.

So what if you had these milestones taken away from you? Or at the very least irreversibly altered? How would you cope? Would you cope? We ask this because it’s happening – and people aren’t coping. Mental health is a big problem for all communities and all demographics – be it cultural, social, gender or age.

COVID-19 has ended a lot of lives and severely disrupted countless others. And the extent of the latter group is largely unknown. We spoke to four twenty-somethings who have had their world turned upside down thanks to the severe restrictions brought on by the pandemic.

Lucy Maudsley, 25, is currently pregnant with her first child. Now at 37 weeks, she’s spent the majority of her pregnancy in lockdown. All the things she imagined doing before her life completely changes forever have become impossible, even illegal.

She describes the loss of these possibilities as a form of grief. “I mourn the things that I’ve missed out on doing,” she says.

“I had a list of all the things I’d do with my maternity leave, like going to a nice restaurant with my fiancée or going on one last getaway, just the two of us.”

One such ‘thing’ is usually a must-have event on the pregnancy calendar – a baby shower. On a surface level, a baby shower may just seem like a time when soon-to-be mums receive a lot of gifts and have people eat baby-shaped cake. But its importance runs much deeper.

A baby shower shows almost-parents that they have a support system, a safety-net, a room full of people who love them and their growing baby. It provides comfort to new parents who are probably terrified knowing they are about to take on the biggest challenge of their lives.

For Lucy, having this opportunity taken away from her is devastating. “To have everyone you love and everyone who means something to you in the room all at once, celebrating you and your baby is really special, but obviously that hasn’t been able to happen.”

“It just makes me sad. Not even only for myself and Brad (fiancée), but for my friends and family who I know would’ve loved to be sharing this experience with me.”

Like Lucy, Jiny Lee, 25, was set to experience one of life’s most memorable events this year – her wedding.

It goes without saying, your wedding is a day you spend your whole life picturing, especially as a girl. What kind of dress will you wear? What will the venue be like? Who will be your bridesmaids? But Jiny’s December wedding won’t be what she pictured and, if we can’t get our COVID-19 numbers down, it might not even go ahead.

Jiny Lee’s wedding was set to take place in December, but with a cancelled venue and uncertain numbers, it’s all “on pause”.

“We cancelled our venue in July because we just weren’t sure whether it would be possible,” she says. “I just feel like everything is on pause, in all aspects on my life, it’s just all on pause.”

Josh Choi has also experienced the screeching brakes of COVID-19.

Josh, 18, started his first year at university, but after just one day on campus he was sent home for online learning.

Anyone who has been through university will tell you, first year is a truly foundational moment. It’s when you crawl out of your safe, high-school shell and are forced to start standing on your own two feet. How involved you are, how many friends you make and how well you do, for the most part, is up to you. Plus, first year is always the best party year.

But this year, the traditional first year experience is unrecognisable. There are no campus BBQs, no student union events and any new friends you might make are limited to a small square on your Zoom screen.

“I had high expectations for my first year but it’s just ended up staying home and studying online,” Josh says. “It’s not the experience I was looking for.

“A lot of people say first year is one the best years, you’re learning university life, there are heaps of events to go to but I haven’t even had the chance to make any new friends.

“It just feels a bit like this year has been taken away from me.”

Sean Nelson is at the opposite end of his university career to Josh. Having graduated last year, after six years studying engineering and computer science, he was looking forward to starting his first full-time job as a Network Software Specialist Graduate at Telstra.

He experienced just a taste of corporate life, spending about six weeks working in the Melbourne office, before he, like so many of us, was told to work from home. But a career is much more than simply sitting at a desk and completing tasks. Hopefully, it involves friendship, camaraderie, opportunity and new experiences. And when it comes to your first-ever job in your field of study, these things are especially important.

Sean says he had “grand expectations” for this new job. “I thought it was going to be awesome.”

“I was super excited because there was going to be so many new things I was set to experience.

“I was keen to experience being an adult outside of university and I had goals I wanted to achieve.”

But not long into working from home, Sean, along with all the other graduates at Telstra, was moved to working in complaints, after their call centres were shut due to COVID-19. Degrees became irrelevant and life became an endless cycle of sifting through an ever-growing pile of complaints. It was a far-cry from what Sean had envisioned for his career.

It was during those eight weeks in complaints that Sean first noticed his mental health beginning to crumble.

“Moving to complaints was devastating, he says. “I knew I didn’t enjoy customer-facing work, so to be told I’d be doing it for eight weeks, I thought ‘this is going to be the longest eight weeks of my life’.

“It had a huge effect on my outlook for the year.”

Sean’s stint in complaints happened during Victoria’s first lockdown. So by the time the second wave hit and Stage 4 was announced, his mental health was at an all-time low.

“Having that little taste of freedom when restrictions were eased in June and then having it taken away was really hard,” he says.

“I’d made plans for events thinking it was all over and then it was just ‘bad luck, here’s Stage 4’, that was really disheartening.

“If you have the mentality of ‘it’s only this long and it will end at this point’, that gives you the motivation to stay positive and keep going, but now we’ve seen that they can just keep imposing more and more restrictions regardless of whether or not you’ve finished the last set. That puts a lot of doubt in peoples’ minds about when this is going to go back to normal.”

After graduating last year, Sean was excited to begin his new career but has spent all year working from home.

Sean is far from alone in finding this second wave harder than the first. Lifeline Melbourne manager Meredith Dalton says on July 4, when the Victorian Government announced the lockdown down of nine commission towers, there was a 22 per cent increase in Victorian calls to Lifeline. And when Stage 4 was announced it rapidly jumped to 30 per cent. At the moment, someone calls Lifeline every 30 seconds.

“We see our service as a barometer of what’s happening in the community,” Meredith says. “In August, up to 40 per cent of callers wanted to discuss COVID-19 and on top of that there’s been a lot of calls around issues of loneliness, isolation and anxiety.”

“When something major happens in the community, we can see everybody’s mental health being impacted at some level. I think we all need to be careful.”

Jiny says the first lockdown “didn’t impact” her as much mentally. But the announcement of Stage 4 affected her much more than she expected.

“This idea of being isolated and in lockdown for another six weeks, not seeing friends or going to church, it made me feel more confined,” she says.

“I think many will agree, being isolated is really tiring. There’s a lot more anxiety, perhaps about your own health and your family’s health, but also about not being able to socialise.

“I’m trying to normalise how I’m feeling, rather than saying there’s something wrong with me. What we’re living isn’t normal, this isn’t what we’re used to, so I guess it’s normal to be feeling anxious.”

Meredith has worked with Lifeline Melbourne, which is run by Uniting Vic.Tas, for 11 years. But there’s one demographic she’s hasn’t really heard from before this year – young people.

“We don’t have exact numbers, but I can tell you we are taking a much larger number of calls from young people,” she says. “In other years, we have received very few calls from that demographic.”

It’s clear something about COVID-19 lockdowns and young people don’t mix. Department of Health and Human Services data from early August showed a 33 per cent increase in young Victorians going to hospital after self-harming, when compared with this time last year.

Furthermore, a mid-April UNICEF Australia survey showed that only 45 per cent of the 1000 young people who participated said they were coping well. That’s compared with 81 per cent in January.

So why is this? Well, Professor Patrick McGorry AO, executive director of youth mental health service Orygen and founder of Headspace, says it may come back to this idea of missed milestones.

“For young people, this is not just a period of time, like a dead zone, it’s actually such a critical time in life that you may never catch up,” he says.

“There’s a general loss of confidence in the future and young people feel that especially. They’ve got more future than past and now they have a huge cloud over their future, certainly their immediate future.

“While this disease itself is not as dangerous for young people, the measures taken to combat it and protect older people have impacted young people very badly, economically and socially.”

Josh agrees, he says “during your younger years, everyone is very social and you want to go out and explore the world, but a lot of that freedom people tell you to cherish while your young has been taken away.

Lucy’s hypothesis is similar. “You so often get told that your twenties are your carefree years, your fun years,” she says. “You can travel as much as you want and stay out all night if you want to, you don’t have responsibilities.

“But now that we are confined to our homes, all that’s been taken away. And for so many young people, our lives revolve around friends or work or university, but now that’s just gone.”

Josh Choi only spent one day of his first year at university on campus.

Sean is one of those people whose life in a lot of ways, was centred around his friendships. So now, even with Zoom calls and Facebook messenger, he is feeling the impacts of isolation.

“It’s definitely hard. You can forget about your friends a little bit and just think about yourself and how you’re alone, which just exacerbates that feeling of loneliness.”

“I’ve definitely got myself into cycles of focusing on the negatives and just feeling like this is never going to end. It’s challenging to have a positive mindset when you’re stuck doing the same thing day in and day out.

“In the past, if I’ve gotten into a bad cycle like this, seeing a friend or attending an event will help me snap out of it, but at the moment, without those options, the cycle just continues.”

Despite this going on for less than a year (so far), Sean says it does feel like a huge chunk of his life.

“As a kid coming out of high school, you feel like you have all the time in the world but then suddenly you’re 25 and it feels like life is just moving on,” he says.

“I had this vision of getting a job, saving money, moving out. I think subconsciously people have milestones in their head for certain ages and it feels like if this year is a write off and who knows about next year, you just keep getting closer to this target age where you were supposed to meet some goal, but you can’t actually work towards those goals.”

So what can be done? How can we throw our young people an optimistic bone, while also keeping our older folk safe? Well, it’s a delicate balance but one Patrick is not sure we’ve got down yet.

“The media and politicians are trying to give serious messages, but no one is guarding the candle of hope here, no one is keeping that burning,” he says.

“They are not talking about the fact that this will be temporary, one way or another it will blow over, optimism isn’t being highlighted at all.

“That combined with the whiplash of new restrictions is a bad combination when it comes to mental health.

“The messaging around vaccines could be much more positive, not saying ‘we don’t know if it works’ but rather ‘160 vaccines are in development and they are looking promising’.

“The public needs to be given hope.”

And there is a place for hope here. We are seeing the number of new infections slowly but surely decrease. And when it comes to mental health, our governments are starting to react.

The Victorian government has put $60 million into mental health funding for people struggling to cope with this pandemic. And in late August the federal government announced an additional $31.9 million, specifically for Victoria.

This funding will improve outreach and allow for the establishment of community-based pop up hubs, Patrick says. “So if people are struggling and need to talk to someone, there is a way to get help.”

Perhaps in time COVID-19 will become a milestone in its own right. Five, ten, twenty years down the track we’ll probably look back on 2020 with fascination thinking, “wow, that was really crazy.

Sean might be asked, “what was your first job like?” or Josh, “Did you enjoy university?” and they will remember COVID-19 in all its glorious disruption. Jiny might look at her wedding photos one day, a wedding with perhaps only five guests, and COVID-19 will pop up and say “hey, remember me?” Lucy’s daughter might someday ask her what it was like to be pregnant and Lucy will be reminded of pre-natal classes on Zoom and showing off her growing bump to talking heads on her laptop.

Right now, this is strange, scary and frustrating. But one day, it will be long gone and when that day comes, it will make a pretty interesting story.

Mental Health runs from October 10 – 18. If you or someone you know needs help, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.

Professor Patrick McGorry says “for young people, this is not just a period of time, like a dead zone, it’s a critical time in life.”

HELPFUL TIPS

(from Australian Government, Department of Health)

  1. Stay active

It’s a well-known fact that moving your body improves your mood and helps decrease feelings of depression, anxiety and stress. So if you can, get moving. YouTube has millions of videos to help you work out from home, and some of them, believe or not, are actually pretty fun.

  1. Eat well

There is a strong link between what you eat and how you feel, according to Headspace. Eating healthy can help you get a better night’s sleep, give you more energy and improve your concentration.

  1. Stay connected as much as possible

This is a tough one, as it can be exhausting to organise and participate in seemingly endless online conversations. By now, we’ve probably all heard the term ‘Zoomed out’. But maintain social connections is important to feeling safe and well. So if you can, get those tablets, phone or laptops out and keep talking.

  1. Develop new routines

When so much seems out of our control, establishing routines and structure in our days can help provide stability and give us a sense of achievement at the end of the day or week.

  1. Take breaks

Remember to take some time out just for you. Be kind to yourself. Try and find plan some breaks in your day to do something that makes you feel calm and happy.

  1. Seek support

It’s important to talk about how you’re feeling. If you want to talk to someone, other than your family and friends, there are many online and phone chat support services available. You can call Lifeline at any time on 13 11 14 and Beyond Blue has also launched a dedicated COVID-19 webchat service if you don’t feel ready to pick up the phone.

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