Undoubtedly, the COVID-19 pandemic has had devastating impacts on the lives of millions worldwide. While we have been fortunate in my home-state of NSW to have controlled the pandemic relatively well, the community still struggles to cope with its multifaceted effects. Young people are adversely impacted by this pandemic and will continue to bear the long-term consequences in coming years.
As a member of a Youth Advisory Group in the Ministry of Health NSW, I was asked to report on the ways young people are affected by COVID-19 and how NSW Health and other government organisations may assist young people during this time. Embracing this opportunity with a fervent desire to represent my peers, I conducted consultations with fellow members of the WH&Y Commission, who each possessed unique perspectives on the issue. I also consulted my peers outside of the Commission to attain more diverse opinions from young people of different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. Amongst these included young professionals working with youth and disability services.
These consultations revealed a glaring issue – that young people feel neglected and anxious for their future, with many expressing their wish for greater engagement and involvement with policy makers as we attempt to navigate and exit this pandemic as a community:
1. Young people are feeling stressed, anxious and lonely
- Young people are feeling more stress, anxiety and uncertainty due to the impact the pandemic has had on our education, work, personal and family life.
- Young people living alone are feeling lonelier (especially during the initial lockdown), exacerbating pre-existing mental health conditions such as depression.
- Young people from immigrant families are also worried about loved ones who do not have permanent visas and what this means in terms of deportation and return to Australia.
2. Young people are worried about their financial futures
- There are widespread concerns about the state of the economy presently, but also the economic outlook in coming years.
- Most young people graduating university, leaving school or entering the workforce are pessimistic about what the future holds, and are showing feelings of despondency.
- Many of us have seen our parents and family members go through a major economic depression during the Global Financial Crisis (GFC) not so long ago, so we are wary of what the future holds for us. This includes concerns over lack of job prospects, higher taxation and unaffordable property prices, all of which may impact on our ability to pursue personal goals such as having a family, travelling and owning a home.
3. Young people at school feel unsupported and unmotivated
- School-aged young people have expressed confusion regarding social distancing and what’s required from them due to the inconsistent messaging from the government. Because of this, some younger students view social distancing as a joke as they are not aware of the weight of the situation and have not been effectively communicated to about the importance of social distancing, hygiene and sanitisation – even as the number of cases has dropped.
- Students often align themselves with the beliefs of their parents, some of whom were unhappy about lockdowns being forced upon them, and who have a limited understanding of the value of such measures. This has impacted how younger students, especially, perceive the lockdown and the government’s messaging.
- The pandemic has revealed how unprepared schools were a situation of this kind.
- It has also revealed the importance of scientific literacy, and the value of teaching population health to students at school, so that everyone is aware of what it means to live through a pandemic.
- Slow internet connection is a significant issue that has impacted young people at school and university. It affects our ability to engage in video conferences, watch lectures, submit assignments and undertake remote exams.
- Students acknowledge the costliness of technology, including computers and internet data, and highlight how it is affecting our ability to be productive at home.
- Many students have reported that they are lacking motivation, and that online learning is not engaging them. They also report difficulty in maintaining good study habits and the impacts of stress, uncertainty, trauma and grief on motivation levels.
- Year 11 and 12 students particularly feel more stress and pressure regarding assessments, mainly due to an uncertainty of their future.
4. Young people with intellectual disabilities are especially vulnerable
- Those with intellectual disabilities are sensitive to changes in food tastes, textures and smells, caused by a sensory overload. The initial panic-buy led to these young people experiencing significant anxiety as they could not purchase their usual foods at their usual supermarkets.
- Crowded spaces and the perceived risk of being assaulted also contributed to their anxiety.
- Not understanding these significant changes could have led to these young people experiencing a breakdown, hurting themselves or other people.
5. Young people are being exposed to domestic conflict and violence
- LGBTQIA+ youth, particularly those who have come out, experienced significant anxiety and distress being at home with family members who are not accepting of them.
- Many young people have also experienced distress at home as a result of domestic violence during this time.
- Many East Asian youth, including those from both Chinese and non-Chinese communities, have experienced violence, assault and discrimination, in both subtle and overt forms, during COVID-19.
6. What young people want from NSW Health and other government organisations
- More reminders about the mental health and general health services available to young people, such as telehealth consultations.
- More reassurance from the government to ensure the minimisation of long-term economic impacts and to protect young people entering the job market.
- The provision of online support groups or lectures from financial experts to educate us on financial health and literacy to make sound economic decisions, especially during an ongoing economic recession.
- More community engagement with young people through consultation workshops.
- More consistent messaging from the government targeted towards young people.
- More education on population health, social distancing, hygiene and sanitisation.
- More personalised communication with young people experiencing intellectual disabilities to ensure their understanding of the current climate.
- Learning from the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure preparedness for future pandemics/ population health crises.
COVID-19 is a harrowing reminder of prevailing inequalities entrenched within our society. I hope these insights highlight the urgent need for policy makers to prioritise protecting and uplifting those who are most disadvantaged in our society, which often includes young people. This can be done by putting young people of diverse backgrounds at the centre of policy responses through consultations and supporting research on the youth experience to inform the policies that will affect the lives of young Australians for years, and possibly decades to come.