Living in a pandemic: what are the effects of COVID-19 on the mental health of the youth?

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This article was exclusively written for The European Sting by Ms. Katerina Drakos, a 5th year medical student from the Lisbon School of Medicine. She is affiliated with the International Federation of Medical Students Associations (IFMSA), cordial partner of The Sting. The opinions expressed in this piece belong strictly to the writer and do not necessarily reflect IFMSA’s view on the topic, nor The European Sting’s one.


Since the COVID-19 pandemic descended upon us, in 2020, our youth has replaced physical human contact with the harsh blue light of the laptop. Classes and events that were once the highlight of the day became monotonous and tedious. The negative impact of COVID-19 is unmistakable and may have contributed towards the increased incidence of mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, and consequently, suicide.1

If we analyze recent literature: restricted social contact; forced lockdowns; the struggle of watching parents suffer with unemployment, fear of infection, uncertainty, and financial difficulties have all contributed to the deteriorating mental health of the youth, although we mustn’t discard the effect of guilt. Guilt may be present when meeting a friend after having been alone for months, knowing that although it is allowed by governmental regulations, those 15 minutes might have negative repercussions on the youth’s family. The long-term effects on their mental health are clear, and following the initial acute stressful impact, long-lasting fear and stress has become a common occurrence for young people. Many will find it hard to develop their social interaction skills and will become increasingly cyber dependent. It will be a while before they feel comfortable enough to rejoin society and live with the community to the fullest.2

Having considered some of the important factors and stressors, we should also reflect upon what we can do to help reduce the incidence of mental disorders amongst the youth. Recently I attended a talk which explored the use of the terms “physical distancing”, as opposed to “social distancing”. The speakers claimed that the term “social distancing” could lead to negative effects on the mental health of our population (particularly the young), as they would feel lonelier and socially displaced. By substituting the term “social” with “physical”, people were more aware that the only restraints imposed on them were strictly physical and that the social factors are paramount to protect us and our mental health. This hypothesis was developed according to Durkheim and his theory on suicide, where there are two major core principles:

“(1) that the structure of suicide rates is a positive function of the structure of a group or class of people’s social relationships and (2) that social relationships vary according to their level of integration and (moral) regulation”.3 Therefore, the word “social” will likely have a tremendous impact on suicidal ideation as it enhances the social isolation and integration.

To conclude, our youth has been a mediatic spotlight, having been blamed for the number of growing cases4 and, recently, as governments consider their priority with respect to the COVID-19 vaccination. It is undeniable that their mental health has been greatly affected and it’s essential for us, as medical students, to help those in need. This can be as simple as picking up the phone and calling a friend or helping someone with severe symptoms seek a health professional. We must collectively approach this issue as a priority and accept that social reintegration will not be an easy feat.

References

  1. PÚBLICO. 2021. “E depois da covid-19? Ficam o medo e as sequelas psicológicas por resolver.” [online] Available at: <https://www.publico.pt/2021/06/17/sociedade/noticia/covid19-ficam-medo-sequelas-psicologicas-resolver-1966766&gt; [Accessed 25 June 2021].
  2. Singh S, Roy D, Sinha K, Parveen S, Sharma G, Joshi G. “Impact of COVID-19 and lockdown on mental health of children and adolescents: A narrative review with recommendations.” Psychiatry Res. 2020 Nov;293:113429. doi: 10.1016/j.psychres.2020.113429. Epub 2020 Aug 24. PMID: 32882598; PMCID: PMC7444649.
  3. Mueller AS, Abrutyn S, Pescosolido B and Diefendorf S (2021) “The Social Roots of Suicide: Theorizing How the External Social World Matters to Suicide and Suicide Prevention.” Front. Psychol. 12:621569. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.621569
  4. PÚBLICO. 2021. “Quem está a fazer crescer novos casos? A população entre os 20 e os 29 anos, diz Costa.” [online] Available at: <https://www.publico.pt/2021/01/14/sociedade/noticia/crescer-novos-casos-populacao-20-29-anos-costa-1946400&gt; [Accessed 25 June 2021].

About the author

Katerina Drakos is a 5th year medical student from the Lisbon School of Medicine and is a member of the Medical Students Association of Portugal, ANEM-Portugal, National Member Organization (NMO) of the International Federation of Medical Students’ Associations (IFMSA). She is one of the two Portuguese National Exchange Officers and works closely with other mobility issues in her NMO. She is particularly interested in mental health and psychiatric disorders and advocates for the freedom of expression, gender equity and initiatives that keep students well-informed regarding current events.

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