Prioritising Adolescent Mental Health during COVID-19: From Lockdown to the ‘New Normal’
7 September 2020
Childhood & Adolescence (3-18 years) Research
(This blog was co-authored by Annabel Songco and Michele Lim.)
Adolescence is a challenging and critical period of development, marked by milestones in relationships, social interactions, identity formation, and intellectual growth. Yet much of this has been disrupted by the current global pandemic. The ease of spending time with friends on the weekends to the daily structure of schooling, are comforts that have been stripped away from teenagers since mid-March. As lockdown measures slowly start to lift, there is no certainty that the ‘new normal’ will reflect the lives that teenagers had before COVID-19.
While seemingly trivial, these ordinary aspects of teenage life are fundamental to adaptive psychosocial development and mental wellbeing. Face-to-face time with peers provides a space for teenagers to establish unique identities independently from their parents. Likewise, navigating the complex realm of teen friendships and relationships, from group work in the classroom to engaging in team sports and social activities, is equally critical in developing healthy social skills and resilience.
So how has the global pandemic affected the long-term mental health and psychosocial development of teenagers so far? And what are challenges they face in a world of social distancing and uncertainty?
The Oxford ARC Study: Achieving Resilience during COVID-19, is exploring these very issues in young people aged 13 to 18 and their parents. The Oxford ARC Study places teenagers at the heart of the research, consulting with the TRIUMPH Mental Health Network’s Youth Advisory Group to better understand the impact of COVID-19 on common mental health issues relating to worry, anxiety, depression, and eating-related problems. We are especially interested in finding out if mental inflexibility might be a core issue underlying many of these mental health problems.
The team lead, Professor Elaine Fox, Professor of Psychology and Affective Neuroscience at the University of Oxford, emphasises,
It is vitally important that we include the voice of young people in understanding the impact of the covid-19 pandemic on mental health and wellbeing. Little is known about what factors promote resilience in times of uncertainty and the Oxford ARC study is designed to answer this question. We urgently need lots of young people to take part in the study now that schools are beginning to re-open so that we can truly begin to understand what most concerns young people.
Adolescence is a critical period for the onset and development of mental health problems. The ongoing pandemic adds new dimensions of uncertainty, limited physical and social contact with peers, elevated parental contact and conflict, and increased challenges and responsibilities in the home that may otherwise have been absent in a world before COVID-19.
It may be easy to dismiss the four-month lockdown as a temporary disruption to teenagers’ lives with little long-term effects. However, research has shown that all it takes is a small environmental trigger to unravel vulnerabilities to poor mental health and wellbeing.
Although teenagers are more connected than ever through social media, preliminary findings from the Oxford ARC Study have shown that they are twice as likely as their parents to feel lonely and isolated during the pandemic, despite spending time online.
Even with lockdown starting to ease, the transition to the ‘new normal’ is an equally vulnerable period. The Oxford ARC Study has shown that teenagers consistently report that they feel unable to control the important things in life, with rates as high as 60% in the last month. Given the current uncertainty surrounding exam grades and future prospects, it is no surprise that teenagers feel this way. Moreover, since lockdown, teenagers have shown higher levels of worry about missing school or work than their parents, and increasingly feel unable to cope with the unexpected. Thus, the transition back to school phase is critical for teenagers who have missed out on crucial developmental experiences and social deprivations during lockdown.
Additionally, a recent study by the British Science Association found that almost 9 in 10 young people feel that their voices are being dismissed by scientists and politicians when discussing COVID-19. Yet, it is young people who will be the most affected by the pandemic in their current and future social, academic, and financial opportunities—all of which can critically impact their psychosocial well-being.
The upcoming summer months and return to school in September will be a critical transition period for teenagers. There is little certainty on how classes will resume, little guarantee that teenagers can freely interact with their friends, and an overwhelming sense of anxiety about making up for lost academic progress for future academic goals. Without sufficient youth-informed support in place and policies prioritising young people, there is a high possibility for increasingly poor mental health in this time of change.
In the Oxford ARC study, teenagers have their say by being a fundamental part of the research and completing online surveys about their wellbeing. The study is assessing the mental wellbeing and resilience of teenagers for a period of one year, during the pandemic and in this next phase of returning to a ‘new normal’. The results will provide vital information that can help us better respond to the mental health needs of teenagers now and in the future.
There are over 850 teenagers and their parents participating in the study so far, but we need many more to get the best picture of how to promote resilience and optimal wellbeing in young people. The Oxford ARC Study is still recruiting teenagers and their parents to take part at www.oxfordarcstudy.com All participants will enter a draw for the chance to win an Amazon voucher.
The study is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council along with collaborators from the Universities of Cambridge, Glasgow, and New South Wales Sydney, the TRIUMPH (Transdisciplinary Research for the Improvement of Youth Mental Public Health) Network, and the Loneliness and Social Isolation in Mental Health Network.