In Times of Uncertainty (part 2)

Some readers may recall a Messenger article titled 'In Times of Uncertainty,' which used the analogy of a tree being blown by strong winds and how the challenges that we are all currently facing can help us grow. It's safe to say that while the 'winds' looked like they were decreasing for a short time, they have returned and with them, further uncertainty regarding work, finances, and study. So today, curious reader, I wanted to share with you an update on how young people in Australia are coping in the context of COVID-19 and some reminders on how to support their mental health.

In the last few months, a large amount of research has been undertaken by ReachOut and affiliated organisations such as YouthInsight to track the impact of COVID-19 on young people in Australia. Globally, young people are reporting increased levels of loneliness. Also, concentration difficulties, boredom, anxiety, anger, sadness, irritability, restlessness, depression, sleep disturbances, nervousness, hyperactivity/ impulsivity, and feeling uneasy. They are more argumentative, increased dependence on family, fear of contracting COVID-19, and fear of a family member contracting COVID-19 with a significant cross-over with adult reports. If you notice some of these changes, you are not alone, and neither are our young people.

In March, April, and May, YouthInsight surveyed 14-25-year-olds and asked them to describe how they felt. The most recent round of surveys produced the following WordCloud:

Looking at the responses, it is perhaps not surprising that researchers found, while there has been some improvement overall, more than 50 percent of young people are experiencing adverse effects associated with the pandemic. Of particular concern is that 1 in 2 young people report feeling lonely. Before COVID-19 restrictions, this number was estimated to be 1 in 5 based on a survey by ReachOut. It is often the feeling of being disconnected from others, which causes significant levels of distress for young people. This distress occurs partly because the feeling of loneliness increases levels of cortisol and norepinephrine in the body, which are associated with stress and the fight-or-flight response. While distress can be overwhelming and particularly confusing to witness in young people, we know that this decreases throughout a pandemic (Berger et al., 2020).

On the positive, the most recent survey indicated that 42 percent of young people reported feeling 'happy,' while 30 percent reported being unconcerned about COVID-19, and 50 percent reported feeling indifferent. We await the research findings since restrictions have been increased in Victoria. 

Given these findings, how do we support the mental health of our young people?

  • Assist them in getting 'out of their heads and into their lives' by making a schedule, setting small goals, finding activities they enjoy, and following through with plans, particularly those that lead to a sense of calm.
  • Encourage the use of helpful and healthy strategies to manage stressful thoughts and feelings. Sometimes this may be a distraction but could be mindfully noting these experiences or sharing them with supportive people.
  • Enable connections with friends, family, or people in the community, whether by allowing some additional screen time or fostering new virtual associations. 
  • Prompt them to stay active
  • Provide opportunities to eat well
  • Encourage healthy sleep routines
  • Arrange contact with a trusted adult mainly if concerns arise, whether that be a family member or family friend, and if worries persist, contact a G.P., counsellor, or psychologist. 
  • Model helpful and healthy strategies to manage the challenges that we are facing, including those listed above.

As news regarding COVID-19 and Victoria's restrictions continue to flow at a high rate, we are reminded by Clinical Psychologist Kirrilie Smout of how to answer questions that young people may raise with us. The link to Kirrilie's Developing Minds website is included at the end of this article.

  • Ask a question or two to check what their concerns are before responding to the concern raised (e.g., What makes you worried about that? Or Is there something in particular about this which is especially upsetting?)
  • Express care and sympathy 
  • Be matter of fact, calm, and confident with your answer (e.g., Grandpa/Nanna/X/Y is doing lots of things to stay healthy now – for example, they are)
  • Provide a small amount of information
  • Put limits on the amount of time you spend talking about COVID-19 (i.e., short periods of talking and then distract and refocus)

If you are concerned about any changes that you've noticed in your young person's well-being during the pandemic, you are encouraged to seek mental health support either by contacting your family G.P. or the counselling team at Woodleigh. Additional support is also available via KidshelplineHeadspaceYouthBeyondBlueReachOut, and Parentline.

Educational and Developmental Psychologist Senior and Minimbah Campus