Responding to the ‘New Normal’ in a COVID-19 Era: Youth Mental Health in Canada
As we enter another year of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are beginning to recognize the longer-term impacts of this “new normal.” Understandably, most of the initial focus was on rates of infection and mortality, as well as on populations most at risk, such as older adults and people with underlying health conditions. However, it is becoming clear that young people are not immune to the wide-ranging consequences of the pandemic and, in particular, its negative effects on mental health.
The transition to early adulthood is a stressful period at the best of times. It is during this time that mental health challenges are most prevalent among young people, with a majority of mental health diagnoses taking place before the age of 25. Since young people are already at greater risk of experiencing mental health issues such as anxiety and depression, measures adopted to curb the pandemic—including social distancing and premature school closures—may have disproportionate effects on youth mental health.
Social Distancing, Social Isolation
While social distancing has been necessary to curb the spread of the virus, it has also negatively affected the mental health of young people by decreasing their opportunities for positive social interaction. In some cases, young people have found themselves losing access to positive role models, developing negative habits such as heavy substance use and online gambling, or being more exposed to unstable or violent home lives.
According to Statistics Canada, people between the ages of 15 and 24 were most likely to report that their mental health had been negatively impacted since the implementation of social distancing measures. With the loss of programs, spaces, and community supports, young people with pre-existing mental health vulnerabilities have become more at risk for increased mental health distress during this time.
Loneliness and stress over the uncertainties of the future are common reactions to this global crisis, and young people especially are facing multiple disruptions that are specific to their period of life. These disruptions include premature school closures and uncertainties about when classes will resume; missing out on milestone events (like high school and university graduation ceremonies); and, for those who have recently graduated, facing deep unknowns about what the future holds. A study with college students in China found that delays in academic activities were associated with symptoms of anxiety and depression—far from the stereotype of students who rejoiced at school being disrupted.
Another concern is that these impacts on mental health might be long-term. Research shows that survivors of the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak experienced concerning levels of anxiety – even a year later. Findings from other studies on the impacts of SARS show that some symptoms of mental health distress can continue for months—even years—after social distancing measures have ended.
Resilience refers to the way people use their resources to offset challenges, foster adaptation, and help restore stability. This process is important to maintain and promote youth mental health in ways that can protect against future challenges. While more research is emerging on the impacts of COVID-19 on youth mental health, some early findings indicate that some young people are finding ways to cope.
In a study by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto, some young respondents reported less stress from work and school, and more reconnection with family since the beginning of the pandemic. Many of the young people in this study with pre-existing mental health challenges identified positive outcomes of COVID-19, such as being able to re-establish better relationships with friends and family. This study suggests that some young people experienced the pandemic as an opportunity to improve their long-term wellbeing; for example, by recognizing the importance of self-care and reducing substance use. For some young people, then, the disruption brought about by the pandemic has spurred them to reflect on their lives, gain alternative perspectives, and seek change.
While it is reassuring that some young people have found positives in the current situation, resilience in mental health depends on physical resources as well as mental ones. Findings from a study conducted with medical students in Changzhi, China, after the COVID-19 outbreak indicate that protective factors such as family income, stability, and appropriate government interventions can serve as protective factors against mental health distress. Taking this into account, the Canadian government and public health agencies need to identify, enhance, and promote mechanisms that can foster resilience among young people during this health crisis.
In Canada, many young people face potential job losses, lack of employment opportunities, and uncertainties about their career goals (and their futures in general) as a result of the pandemic. Providing material support for these economic insecurities will help to address long-term mental health repercussions.
While Canada is perceived to be a global leader in pandemic planning, there is a clear lack of focus on the mental health consequences of COVID-19 for young people, particularly those aged 16 to 24. Addressing the mental health challenges facing youth—particularly during a health crisis such as the current COVID-19 pandemic—should be a top priority.
Donna Richards, MSW, is a PhD Candidate in the Faculty of Social Work at York University, Toronto, Ontario, Canada. She has more than 10 years of experience working with youth 16–29 years of age and youth-related engagement projects within the governmental and non-profit sectors. Her research interests include mental health and racialized women, health equity with a specific focus on the associations between intersectional forms of stigma, access to care, and health outcomes.