Young people’s mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic: what do we know so far?

  • 17 March 2021
  • General
  • Steven Bright and Dr Katherine Young

It’s almost unbelievable that a whole year has passed since the first lockdown of the COVID-19 pandemic. In such a short space of time, many young people’s lives have changed dramatically and in ways that we never could have expected. One year in and things like virtual lectures, remote working and video chats with loved ones may all just seem like another part of everyday life. But how have all these new experiences been affecting young people’s mental health?

Many of the early media reports suggested that there was a ‘tsunami’ or ‘skyrocketing’ of worsening mental health coming our way. But some of these reports only focused on how participants were feeling in the earliest weeks of the first lockdown. To truly understand how mental health has been changing, we need to compare people’s current mental health symptoms to how they felt before the pandemic. As more of these types of studies have become available, their findings are starting to present a more complicated picture than the earliest reports suggested.

Evidence of worsening mental health

Some studies have found that young people’s anxiety and depression symptoms worsened during the first lockdown in comparison to before the pandemic (Hawes et al., 2021; Magson et al., 2021; Elmer et al., 2020). For example, Hawes et al (2021) investigated how symptoms of depression and anxiety changed during the pandemic in young Americans aged 12-22 years. When they compared  participants’ symptoms during the early stages of the pandemic to the symptoms they previously reported between 2014-2019, they found small to moderate increases. 

When we compare people across different life stages, findings also suggest that young people may be one of the more vulnerable groups, alongside women and job seekers, who are more likely to experience negative mental health outcomes during the pandemic (Daly et al., 2020; van der Velden et al., 2020). 

There have been several stressful experiences for young people during the pandemic that could explain why many are showing poorer mental health. The national lockdown meant that young people had less opportunities for social contact with their friends, peers and even their family for those living away from home. This separation from friends may have been particularly challenging for young people, as friends are a major source of social support at this life stage. Reduced access to schools, universities and places of work may have also prompted a lot of uncertainty about the future for students and young workers.

It may be easy to get caught up in these gloomy findings showing this short-term worsening in many young peoples’ mental health. But this is only one side of the bigger picture. Once we start to consider studies investigating mental health beyond the earliest stages of the pandemic, the findings become a little more complex.

Evidence of other mental health changes during the pandemic 

It appears that not all young people have only been experiencing worsening mental health during the pandemic (Li et al., 2020; Rimfield et al., 2021; van der Velden et al., 2021). One study with UK twins in their early twenties found no changes in their depression or anxiety symptoms during the first lockdown, compared to before the pandemic (Rimfield et al., 2021). In China, researchers found that students’ depression and anxiety symptoms actually improved around the first lockdown, but worsened after restrictions were lifted (Li et al., 2020). 

Findings that show no change or even improvements in young peoples’ mental health during the pandemic (Li et al., 2020) may initially feel shocking. But we must remember that there may have been positive experiences for this group as well. For example, many schools and Universities introduced more open-book assessment methods in the earliest stages of the pandemic. This could have helped ease the pressure students felt for their exams. In contrast, other young people living at home may have appreciated the increased amount of time they had for themselves and their family.

Overall, findings suggest that young people are a particularly vulnerable group for worsening mental health during the pandemic. However, this doesn’t mean that all young people have experienced more depression or anxiety. We must not overlook the improvements that others have experienced. In fact, there are reasons to believe that we could still learn more from researching these contrasting patterns of mental health throughout the pandemic.

What else can we hope to learn?

Since young people are experiencing very diverse mental health outcomes, there may still be underlying factors shaping these experiences that we have not yet identified. When people experience a stressful event like the pandemic, they will show differences in how they respond to and deal with that event. Understanding more about the types of thoughts and behaviours young people engage in when they are under stress, and how this relates to different mental health outcomes, could help us to design and adapt interventions to support the most vulnerable individuals. 

For example, some young adults who have lost their job during the pandemic may feel anxious about finding another. However, these individuals could be encouraged to view this change as an opportunity to explore new areas of work they may be interested in pursuing.

There may also be varying patterns of recovery following the pandemic that we need to consider. We may expect that those young people who are experiencing poorer mental health will naturally feel better as the pandemic restrictions ease and we transition towards a more ordinary way of life. But this might overlook certain individuals who require additional support. For instance, some young people might be anxious about settling back into life at school after spending months at home and learning remotely. By better understanding the sources of stress that affect young people during transitions in their lives, we may even learn lessons about how we can more generally support this group beyond the pandemic itself.

What are we doing to find out more?

We are members of a research team studying mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Our study has collected detailed information about depression, anxiety, trauma and other mental health conditions in over 12,000 British adults before the pandemic, and over 34,000 adults during the pandemic. We’re also looking at how other factors may motivate these mental health changes, such as a person’s age, gender, ethnic background and personal diagnostic history with mental health conditions. 

Supported by MQ; Transforming Mental Health, we will also be examining patterns of thoughts and behaviours in response to stress that affects young people’s mental health in the longer-term. We plan to continue assessing mental health among young people in our study for two years, with the goal of understanding how young people’s lives are affected as pandemic restrictions are lifted and a more ordinary way of life has returned. We hope that our findings will help guide future pandemic policies to protect the most vulnerable groups, and improve our ability to support young people experiencing stress in their lives.

Image sourced from Pexels

Steven Bright is a psychology student from Loughborough University, currently undertaking a research assistant placement at the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre of King's College London. He is a member of the COVID-19 Psychiatry and Neurological Genetics (COPING) study research team. 

Dr Katherine Young is a lecturer and MQ Fellow at the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre of King's College London. She is the principal investigator of the Repeated Assessment of Mental Health in Pandemics (RAMP) study, which is investigating mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Her work is supported by MQ and aims to focus on young people’s mental health during and after the pandemic.