What can be done to help young people during these challenging times? Perhaps instead of deciding what is best for them, we should ask them what they need.
Despite all their worries, many young people are particularly good at staying afloat. What is their secret? As the world navigates the uncharted waters of life beyond the pandemic, we need to involve young people in the conversation to better understand their resilience.
One of the up-sides of these disconcerting days of COVID-19 is a heightened sense of community and togetherness. We really are all weathering this storm together. Healthy younger neighbours are slipping notes through mailboxes to let the elderly know help is available; schoolteachers are making phone calls to check if their students are OK; rainbows are popping up in windows across the country. Uncertainty and danger can kindle a special sort of generosity and growth, and a breadth of solidarity that we rarely witness. It is no wonder that this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week focused on kindness.
While we are all in this together, as many have said, we are in different boats. Teenagers are one group who feel the social isolation of being cut off from their friends more intensely than most. Adolescence is a stage of life where we are trying to establish our independence from our parents and family and find our own way into adulthood. This is the time when our peer group becomes especially important to us. So, it is no surprise that young people, especially teens, are really feeling the sting of social distancing. Even though teens may spend lots of time on social media this does not seem to make up for face-to-face contact. In our ongoing research at the University of Oxford, we are finding that despite spending an average of 3 hours a day on social media, mainly to connect with others, 35% of the young people surveyed say they feel lonely most of the time. In contrast, just 17% of their parents reported similar levels of loneliness. In fact, nearly 40% of parents say they never feel lonely, while only 20% of their teenage children feel this way.
It is clear that adolescents warrant special attention during these unnerving times. This is a period when anxiety is naturally increased and when most serious mental health problems begin to emerge. For instance, the first onset of anxiety and depression typically occurs in the early teens around 13-14 years of age. We have previously found in a healthy sample of school children that about 80% of young people in this age group engage in some form of worry on a regular basis, typically about issues relating to school, relationships, peers, and health. That was in the absence of COVID-19. With COVID-19 in the picture, the many uncertainties about the present and future are likely to be additionally distressing. For example, our latest results show that during the pandemic, a high number of teens, 55%, are worried about missing school and 28% of teens feel stressed about not knowing what will happen in the future.
So, it is only fitting that as lockdowns are gradually eased around the world, today’s young generation are given a platform to voice their concerns and an opportunity to play an active role in shaping what their future will look like. A particular concern is that adolescents do not feel they are being included in the conversation about COVID-19. According to a recent survey on a nationally representative sample of 14 to 18-year-olds, almost 90% said they feel left out of the conversation with both scientists and politicians. Not being heard and not feeling acknowledged, the burden of stress and uncertainty is unusually high for young people. Perhaps this is why we are finding that 44% of them are sleeping less than 7 hours per night. We need to ask teenagers what keeps them up at night, what are their concerns and worries about the future, and more importantly how can we - as a community, as parents, as teachers, as scientists, as politicians – involve young people to be part of the conversation in order to help improve their mental health and wellbeing. The first step is acknowledging that teenagers can bring valuable perspectives to the table and inviting them to have a say.
We launched the Oxford ARC Study to understand resilience during COVID-19 and inspire a generation of young people to be involved in research. Together with the Youth Advisory Group from the TRIUMPH mental health network, we will be regularly reporting on what is hard for adolescents during this period. The Youth Advisory Group, young people from local councils in the UK, and young people with lived experience of mental health conditions have helped shape our study and will continue to play a key role in asking the questions that matter the most. In the long run, we will be interested in the coping strategies that young people use that can be shared and taught. The Oxford ARC Study will help us learn how it is that some teenagers will one day emerge from this crisis feeling enriched by a difficult albeit growth-promoting experience instead of weakened by its inherent uncertainty. There is a lot to be learned from young people. All we need to do is ask.
For further details on the study and how to take part, please visit: https://oxfordarcstudy.com/.