Supporting Youth Wellbeing during COVID-19

On the 11th of March 2020, the World Health Organisation declared the outbreak of the new coronavirus, COVID-19, a pandemic. The global health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic are obvious, with over 75,000 deaths so far, and yet the social, economic and psychological consequences are also serious and far-reaching. Physically, youths are faring well in terms of health outcomes with COVID-19, many of whom are asymptomatic or experience mild symptoms, but they are receiving attention in the media, described as vectors or ‘super-spreaders’ of the disease. Some portrayals of young people in Ireland have been less than sympathetic — the most critical describe this generation as irresponsible, privileged, addicted to technology, unable to amuse themselves, and ‘snowflakes’. However, young people’s lives have been disturbed greatly around the world since the outbreak of COVID-19: schools, universities, and social and recreational spaces have closed. Families have been asked to avoid ‘playdates’, social gatherings, and public spaces such as supermarkets to avoid spending time in close proximity of others. Dramatically, most young people have lost their routine, social support, access to formal education, and participation in sports or extracurricular activities overnight.

COVID-19 is threatening basic human needs for adults and young people – our need to belong, our need for certainty and predictability, and our need for feel a sense of purpose and meaning. For adolescents, the challenge of COVID-19 comes at a time when they are already experiencing a major life transition into adulthood. Simultaneously, young people have access to an exponential amount of information (both factual and bogus) about coronavirus. Many young people are worried about the health of their loved ones. This constellation of factors is a serious challenge to the resilience and wellbeing of all young people, particularly vulnerable youths, as they seek to manage a range of emotions about their immediate and future circumstances. The trouble with the current crisis is that poor coping strategies used by youths — large social gatherings such as lock down parties, pop up ‘corona speakeasies’, and maintaining face-to-face contact with friends — is likely to produce immediate and long-term dangers to health. Here we offer three low-cost, immediately available and evidence-based avenues for positively guiding and supporting young people to meet their psychological needs whilst adhering to public health protocols.

  1. Find ways for young people to feel connected to others while maintaining the recommended measures for social distancing. There is a large body of evidence that supports the idea that feeling connected to other people and many different social groups is beneficial for our health: the ‘social cure’. Some suggestions include proactively use technology to talk to friends and family daily, trace a family tree, or do good deeds for neighbours. By doing so you will help to fulfil their need to belong and connect with others, and reduce the need for face to face interaction, protecting those most at risk of contracting the virus.

  2. Support young people to acknowledge their feelings and help them to generate ideas for increasing positive emotions such as gratitude and optimism, and decreasing negative emotions. Apps such as Tackle Your Feelings, Mind Gnats, Headspace, and platforms such as Jigsaw Online can aid this. Limit the amount of time spent listening to news briefings which can be anxiety-producing for young people (as well as adults) and direct them towards good news stories too. Teach young people to question the source of information about COVID-19 and the evidence supporting the information. Having access to factual information is more likely to reduce anxiety than sensational, fake news — lead by example.

  3. Encourage young people to draw from the strength of exceptional others. Our latest research indicates that many young people turn to ‘transparent heroes’ (parents, family members and friends), ‘trending heroes’ (Ariana Grande, online influencers), and ‘martial heroes’ (doctors, nurses, firemen, Good Samaritans) during times of need. Help young people to find heroes (or celebrities or online influencers) who are modelling appropriate behaviours (including social distancing). Share stories of frontline workers who are working hard to protect our society for the common good: as Taoiseach Leo Varadkar emphasised in his recent St. Patrick’s day address: not all heroes wear capes. Encourage young people to reflect on figures such as Anne Frank, Greta Thunberg, Marie Curie, Malala Yousafzai, Victor Frankl, or Nelson Mandela (for more ideas see https://www.giraffe.org/) and discuss how those individuals coped with adversity. Thinking about heroes who coped with difficult circumstances can help young people find meaning in life and offer hope in a gloomy situation. Importantly, thinking about these heroes might stimulate the young person to take proactive action rather than succumb passively to circumstances, and offer comfort and psychological protection during the current crisis.

While these approaches may help to promote resilience in young people through the challenges associated with COVID-19, ultimately there are other factors that will need to be considered. Tackling inequality is a major part of the puzzle. Where schools remain closed, perhaps for months, the gap between children living in different socio-economic circumstances will widen. Imagine the benefit of living in an enriched household where time is spent in nature, with books, and completing challenging schoolwork, relative to an impoverished environment where youths are left fend for themselves. So too will the gap between typically developing students and the many young people with complex learning needs who have lost access to critical learning and care supports.

Young people have an important role to play in protecting others, particularly older adults and those with underlying health conditions, from contracting COVID-19. Also, we have a responsibility to support young people in maintaining positive mental health, while adhering to public health guidelines, during this time. As adults, we can strive to promote and model positive coping strategies and care for others during this crisis, ensuring that young people thrive whilst ultimately working to protecting the most at-risk members of society

References

Haslam, C., Jetten, J., Cruwys, T., Dingle, G., & Haslam, S.A. (2018). The new psychology of health: Unlocking the social cure. Routledge: London, UK.

Kinsella, E. L., English, A. & McMahon, J. (2020) Zeroing in on Heroes: Adolescents’ Perceptions of Hero Features and Functions. Heroism Science, 5(2). https://scholarship.richmond.edu/heroism-science/vol5/iss2/2

Weissberg, R. P., Durlak, J. A., Domitrovich, C. E., & Gullotta, T. P. (2015). Social and emotional learning: Past, present, and future. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/302991262_Social_and_emotional_learning_Past_present_and_future

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