The pandemic and youth mental health

The confinements imposed to contain the covid-19 pandemic are having a strong impact on the mental health of young people. Child psychiatrist points out the most common problems and offers clues to better understand – and solve – the problem.

Concerned about the life that is slipping away from them and the future that awaits them, young people have seen the cancellation of some crucial – and unique – moments in their lives, all in the name of the health and safety of all. But what impact will these consecutive lockdowns have on young people’s mental health?

According to a child psychiatrist at the CUF Institute, “the pandemic has changed daily habits and limited social interactions and outdoor activities, which, combined with the fear of infection, has led to feelings of uncertainty, loss of control, anxiety, sadness and anger. Indeed, the confinements generated what the specialist calls “stressors,” which had a significant impact on the adolescents’ mental health. Among these, she cites social isolation, because they no longer have close contact with friends and family; the closure of schools, which now only offer online education; the lack of personal contact with classmates, friends and teachers; the excessive use of the Internet and social networks; the decrease in physical activity; the need to manage and reorganize personal spaces and also changes in the dynamics of behavior and family relationships.

As a result of all this, the doctor confirms that in this past year, many situations of young people with mental health problems triggered or reinforced by the pandemic have come to his office. “The most frequent complaints are symptoms of anxiety, fear, sadness and irritability,” reports the specialist, also adding the aggravation of already existing disruptive behaviors, behavioral changes resulting from excessive use of online games and social networks, as well as changes in sleep patterns.

The negative impact of the pandemic in world youth is precisely the conclusion reached by the authors of a study conducted by a team from the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences (FPCE) of the University of Coimbra (UC). Preliminary results show that 14% of adolescents, aged 13 to 16, present “high depressive symptomatology (above the 90th percentile) during the covid-19 pandemic, a percentage higher than that found in a study conducted by the same team of researchers during the Portuguese financial crisis of 2009-2014,” reads a note shared by the UC.

The results do not surprise the doctor, considering that “since the beginning of the pandemic, we have experienced two lock-ins and consequent social isolation, with a decrease or absence of social support and an increased perception of the feeling of loneliness and an exacerbation of its effects; a decrease or absence of healthy daily routines – for example, staying in pajamas all day or not eating breakfast before school; a sense of uncertainty about the future; a decrease in the sharing of emotions; a decrease or absence of activities outside the home; and the risk of death of loved ones, with some cases of family death,” he explains. “These are undoubtedly factors conditioning the emergence of anxious and depressive symptoms,” justifies the child psychiatrist.

The study also found that girls have higher levels of fear, sadness and anger than boys. The doctor analyzes the result with the fact that anxious symptoms, as well as depressive symptoms, are more frequent in the female sex: “Girls have greater academic concerns, and in a situation of disruption of the study routine, online courses create uncertainties in the future that are perceived as risky, threatening life goals, success,” she reinforces.

Identical findings were obtained in a recent study conducted by UNICEF among adolescents and youth in Latin America and the Caribbean, which also showed the negative impact of the pandemic on the mental health of people in this age group. In the seven days prior to the survey, 27% experienced signs of anxiety and 15% experienced depression. For almost 30% of participants (8,444 people aged 13 to 29 in total), the main reason for this feeling is related to the economic situation. Again, girls were more affected, with 43% feeling more pessimistic about the future, compared to 31% of men.

Faced with a situation that cannot be controlled, it is important to have or develop mechanisms that help cope with reality. When asked about the most relevant tools for young people today, the doctor emphasizes that “it is important that young people have access to quality information and services. maintain contact – within the rules of protection – with their friendsbecause at this stage of development, social support from peers is very important.” On the other hand, “it is important to ask for support family and friends and, if necessary, mental health professionals; physical exercise regular or certain an activity that gives them pleasurelike painting, drawing, listening to music, photography”. And all this without forgetting the necessary “the adoption of healthy sleep habits“.

On the other hand, the child psychiatrist points out that “while young people feel that they are partly deprived of their adolescence and experiences, they also know that the situation is general and that they cannot control or change it, so that emotional management can be easier and less damaging. Parents, educators, and teachers can play an important role in this. In the doctor’s words, “parents must support adolescents, helping them to understand, accept, and even find positive meanings for the stresses they feel.For example, the fact that there is more family time and the opportunity to do activities together, such as watching movies or series and the opportunity for the teenager to rearrange his or her studies.” In addition, it is also the responsibility of responsible adults “To be attentive to the behavioral and emotional changes of adolescents.“, so that there is a rapid intervention, if needed.

In conclusion, the expert leaves an optimistic message, regarding relationship building:”Teens are always looking for ways to connect and socialize. If you can be together, even with restrictions, relationships are not a problem..”

Regarding the use of electronic devices, which is now widespread because of online courses, he warns, “Screen misuse has become a major problem during confinement, as it is a preferred form of communication and socialization with family and friends. It becomes important to monitor screen time to minimize the risk of addiction and behavioral and emotional changes..”

In this pandemic phase, it is important to take care of yourself! There is a program that allows you to be accompanied by a psychologist without leaving your home. 

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