We need to understand the pandemic's impact on young people

CONCERNS: A number of recent surveys and reports highlight how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting our youth.
CONCERNS: A number of recent surveys and reports highlight how the coronavirus pandemic is impacting our youth.

Living in Limbo. That was the title of a recent report by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) on a survey that investigated the views of young people in Australia as the COVID-19 pandemic began to hit home.

Conducted in April, the UNICEF survey found that, across Australia, all aspects of young people's lives have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the national response to it.

The three most common changes young people reported experiencing were: having to stop seeing their friends; their education being disrupted or stopped; and having to stop their usual extracurricular activities.

These are far from mere inconvenience or missing out on a few nights out with mates.

But what struck me too from the report was that, as well as missing out on work and education, as well as mingling and milestones, young people are shouldering a large amount of responsibility and worry in the pandemic.

UNICEF found that one in five of the young people they surveyed work in a job that could put them at risk of contracting the virus.

That wasn't just a worry for them, but for family members who were more at risk if they contracted COVID-19. And also for others in and out of their orbit.

One young woman from regional New South Wales who worked at the local supermarket told UNICEF that her friend didn't like being near her after work in case she spread the infection, because that would then mean the friend would be unable to continue her work as a babysitter for a pregnant woman.

Others reported experiencing abuse in their jobs. One from Tasmania has had to call the police twice to deal with people who were verbally abusing her about social distancing issues.

The report also found that not all young people are equally impacted by COVID-19.

Inevitably that includes young people from rural and regional areas, where the pandemic and the associated restrictions have exacerbated many of the existing challenges they face, including limited digital access.

And it observed that, for some in regional areas, this is the second or third crisis within a year, after drought and bushfire.

Asked in a survey by the publishing group Pedestrian what was keeping them awake, its reader respondents nominated:

  • The potential of my family being infected with COVID-19 (30 per cent)
  • The impact of COVID-19 on my financial/job security (30 per cent) (where 19 per cent of respondents said they were currently unemployed as a direct result of the pandemic)
  • My mental health during COVID-19 (17.5 per cent).

Many of these issues have also been confirmed in a recent report by the Youth Affairs Council of Victoria (YACVic) that sounds a warning bell for us as some of the restrictions now begin to lift.

Because even as our young people return to school or TAFE or uni or work, and start to be able to catch up again in real life with each other, we know we surely won't go back to 'normal' lives again for a long time and, for many amongst us, life will be tough.

Some won't be going back to work or starting jobs they had hoped to.

YACVic's report found that young people from rural and regional areas were more likely to list their mental health and physical health as a concern, a worry given the already poor access to health services for young people from rural and regional areas.

Importantly, YACVic also talked to 50 different organisations and services which support young people.

It revealed that a massive 89 per cent of statewide services have seen increased demand.

That's because the pandemic is forcing some young people to seek support for the first time in their lives.

But it's also because it's exacerbating existing issues for young people including mental ill-health, unemployment, family violence, discrimination and homelessness.

Moving to phone and online counselling sessions has helped some young people engage with youth workers and services.

But that can be tricky too. It can be awkward or scary to have complex conversations by phone or video links with workers you may never have met, or if internet access is poor or there is little privacy at home for confidential conversations about family conflict, substance use, or sexuality.

And, while many services have experienced increased demand, one in four of Victoria's youth services have had to stand employees down or reduce the number of hours worked.

These are the issues that keep me awake at night.

We have asked young people to make many sacrifices and shoulder up to many responsibilities through the pandemic so far.

It's our responsibility to make sure they get the support they need to manage this new world that, like us, they couldn't have imagined just a few months ago.

Angus Clelland is chief executive of Mental Health Victoria CEO

This story We need to understand the pandemic's impact on young people first appeared on The Canberra Times.