COVID-19: Adolescents experienced higher anxiety during pandemic, study reveals

81% of adolescents experienced an increase in anxiety during the pandemic, data collected by the Richmond Foundation shows

81% of adolescents experienced an increase in anxiety during the pandemic
81% of adolescents experienced an increase in anxiety during the pandemic

Adolescents between the ages of 16 and 24 have experienced more fear and less hope during the COVID-19 pandemic, Dr Natalie Kenely said.

This was revealed during the Richmond Foundations Annual Conference: The Impact of COVID-19 on the Nation’s Mental Health. Kenely was specifically referencing the effect the pandemic has had on children and adolescents. 

Kenely said that 81% of adolescents experienced an increase in anxiety during the pandemic, citing that they did not feel like the COVID-19 measures currently in place efficiently protect them from the virus.   

“Prolonged periods of feeling sad and depression can be overwhelming for young people and may result in harmful behaviour or the reappearance of pre-existing mental illness,” she said.

Kenely said that during the pandemic one in three people aged 11 to 19 felt moderately lonely.

“For those between 16 and 21, 32% felt lonely more than three days a week during the first wave (April), which went down to 19.2% during the second wave (July), increase again during the third wave (August) with 22.2% and than increase more during the fourth wave (October) with 33.8%,” she said.

Kenely said that during the pandemic, more adolescents reached out, to speak about their mental health, especially during the summer, with 70% of them reaching out.

Return to school helped

However, Kenely said that a return to school, and some sort of normality, helped mental health in children and adolescents. “During the height of the pandemic, 16.1% of 16 to 24-year-olds said they lacked happiness, which during October went down to 5.7%,” she said.

Kenely said that it was important that these feelings and emotions were acknowledged and validated – “we need to stay aware, and attuned, be mindful of their emotional and mental wellbeing, as well a provide mental social support for our young,” she said.

‘Not all stress, is negative’

Consultant psychiatrist Dr Nigel Camilleri said that during the pandemic, children felt that they were waking up with no purpose. “Children had many worries related to the consequences of COVID-19 such as whether they will see their friends and relatives go to school or get sick,” Camilleri said.

Camilleri said that it was also more difficult for parents to calm their children’s anxieties because of uncertainties in their lives.

However, Camilleri said it was important to note that there was a difference between positive and negative stress.

“Negative stress, can cause increased anxieties, but positive stress, for example, such as seeing the pandemic as a challenge, which the majority of people can exit with a positive outcome can build resilience,” Camilleri said.  

Camilleri said it was important, to talk through situations with children, in order to help them rationalise it, and in turn not fear it. "The way parents perceive events, and handle them, has a great impact on children. If parents perceive the pandemic as an opportunity, so will their children," he said.   

‘COVID-19 is a traumatic global event’

Boston University School of Public Health, professor Sandro Galea said that COVID-19 could be categorised as a traumatic event because it threatened the public’s health and safety. 

“Right now, we are living through a traumatic event on a global level with worrying ramifications to people’s mental health,” Galea said.

Galea said that because COVID-19 was not a contained event such as 9/11, the effects of the virus on a person’s mental health would affect a person deeply globally. Rather than just affecting people deeply, at the epicentre.

Galea said that a study in the UK found that during the pandemic there was an increase in mood disorders, as well as binging drinking and in the US, a study found symptoms of depression had increased three-fold in adults. 

“The increase is dramatic, even if it was expected. More so this increase was felt by marginalised groups, such as persons with low assets, unstable employment or a lack thereof, people who are renting, persons of colour, and so on,” Galea said.   

Likewise, Galea said that mental health issues were more present in low-wage workers than high wage workers. He also said that persons who had COVID-19 or, who had lost someone due to COVID-19 appeared to be more likely to be suicidal. 

“A wave of suicidal tendencies and poor mental health will be felt going forward in the next months and years,” Galea said.