It has been very difficult for me to watch so many young people participate in activities that put themselves and others at risk during the pandemic. My feelings have bounced back and forth and in between understanding, anger, puzzlement, and the desire to corral them on an island and let them be. These feelings turned to alarm when I saw the results of a study published in September. During the summer of 2020, 25% of people aged 18-24 seriously considered suicide. More recently, children as young as elementary school age have died by suicide as a result of COVID-related depression.
Stress, anxiety, loneliness, and depression are serious problems among all age groups, but young people are far more likely to be experiencing suicidality – serious thoughts, plans, and attempts at ending one’s life by suicide. Never more have young people struggled or needed to hear “Ive Got You!”
Social connections are important to people of all ages, but they play a special role in the mental wellbeing of children, adolescents, and young adults. These connections provide a critical sense of belonging and social support. They are opportunities to practice and master intimacy with non-family members. Friendships offer a “normalizing” barometer that help young people not feel isolated or out of step with others. They provide the ability to confide deeply and feel accepted. And they are a critical buffer against stress, anxiety, and depression.
While I desperately want our young people to be safe and protect others from COVID, I also truly recognize the need to maintain ties and closeness. While you’d think that Facetime, Zoom, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc., would be perfect remedies for young people, they are not. First, they provide glimpses of what friends and others are doing that are unsafe. This can leave those who are trying to be safe feeling more isolated, angry, and left out. Second, it just isn’t the same as being with friends in-person. We can all understand that.
I think we need two things. First, Mental Health Front Liners need to be especially vigilant in looking for signs in people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that may mean they are in distress and need your help. You can do that using the extensive info provided here at at the SIGNS section of the Mental Health First Responders hub.
Second, we need to offer compassion, reassurance, and hope. Remember that a year in the life of a 20-year-old represents a much larger slice of their life than it does for a 50-year-old. To a 9-year-old, it’s one of only 4-5 years of school! If this all feels long to you, imagine how it feels for young people. A benefit of being older during COVID is having the perspective that a year is actually a relatively short period in a lifetime. We know that these periods come to an end and that there will be an other side to it. We know we will remember it and tell stories about it in the future. We can share that wisdom with young people.
Young people feel like their lives have stalled. Remember that during this period, young adults have a biological imperative to be social, to meet a mate, to begin their adult lives. They are hard-wired for exactly the opposite of what a pandemic requires to be safe.
Let’s remind young people that they still have innumerable opportunities ahead to be with friends, go to school, pursue their interests, and catch up on their goals. Life will get back on track. The track may have changed, but that’s life – full of twists and turns, some doors closing while others open. Even still, let’s express sympathy and empathy – much can be endured when endured together.
Finally, use the I’ve Got You Project guidelines below for how to help if you think a young person in your life is seriously struggling.
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