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Experts predict post-covid mental health epidemic

Parnian Shahsavary/YJI

A mental health crisis could be imminent because of the impact of lockdowns and other stressful aspects of the pandemic, mental health professionals told Youth Journalism International.

Helen Butlin, a psychotherapist in Ontario, Canada, said people are already vulnerable and struggling.

The “tender, raw spots in our mental well being,” Butlin said, are under tremendous pressure, making coping more difficult. 

She wasn’t the only one.

“This is a collective trauma that we are all facing. It is a feeling of helplessness,” said Michelle Collins, a certified clinical trauma counselor in Houston, Texas.

Laura Reed, a counselor at Lincoln College in England, said mental health professionals are predicting high levels of counseling post-pandemic. People may need help after being confined in unhappy environments, experiencing relationship failures and family problems — or managing grief in isolation.

Helen Butlin

Michelle Collins, a certified trauma counselor, and counselor Kate Turner, who both practice in the Houston, Texas, area, said post traumatic stress disorder is likely to be a long-term effect.

Sara Sirati, a psychotherapist and counselor in Cardiff, Wales, said people may find their emotional and psychological energy depleted by the pandemic, leaving them feeling burdened and without much motivation. 

If people don’t make use of the resources available to them via social media and the news media and through counseling, according to Sirati, society could be facing a serious  mental health epidemic.

Sara Sirati

Young people with persistent negative thoughts or anxiety should reach out to a mental health professional for help, Sirati said.

But Sirati also said after the pandemic there is likely to be social media fatigue. People will be really missing physical touch and human contact, she said, and that kind of under-stimulation can cause anxiety and depression.

Some of covid-19’s challenges have been especially rough on students – cancelled extracurriculars, online learning and being isolated from loved ones.

Although post-pandemic problems are uncertain, mental health professionals interviewed predicted that even when it is over and people feel safer and less isolated, they expect an increase in anxiety and depression.

That can then lead to suicide attempts, according to Roseanne Erika Loquellano, a medical intern in Manila in the Philippines.

Some aspects of life may never return to the way they were before the pandemic.

“I don’t know if normalcy with 30 students in the same classroom will ever be the same again,” said Peri Gilbert-Reed, a counselor in Shreveport, Louisiana.

Covid’s current challenges

Though the professionals warned of a future mental health crisis, young people are currently coping with the daily challenges of covid-19. 

With everything in lockdown and their whole lives altered, their approach to the pandemic varies from one youth to the next. While some have used this time to their advantage, others are overwhelmed and struggling to hold it together. 

Passengers stay masked and socially distanced in the Istanbul subway. (Bilge Nur Güven/YJI)

“There is constant fear that is always on top of everyone’s minds about the virus, not to mention the economic burden that it entails on each family,” said Loquellano.

Teens who have been in lockdown or quarantine told YJI that they are spending more time online, in virtual classrooms and on social media.

From online learning to quarantine, the effects of this new virtual life can have a plethora of social effects, including too much screen time and social anxiety.

“I am normally on social media. I choose to go to platforms such as Netflix and TikTok in my free time,” said Taylor Helwig, a high school freshman in Ontario, Canada.

Taylor Helwig

The loss of social interactions can create social anxiety among peers after having been isolated for so long.

Too much screen time may damage the brain, according to a 2019 research report from Harvard Medical School that quotes Michael Rich, a pediatrician and director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Boston Children’s Hospital.

Rich told the Harvard publication that children need both online and offline experiences, including unstructured time that allows space for creativity and imagination.

Some professionals said they are seeing positive coping mechanisms among youth.

“Contrary to my expectations, most people aren’t taking it too badly,” said Paulina Véjar, a longtime school psychologist in Quito, Ecuador. “I think one of the things that’s helped is that they’re busy with school.”

Véjar, who has 24 years of experience working with youth, said, “There is a characteristic that is inherent in children and young people which is the plasticity of the personality. This characteristic allows young people to be more adaptable.”

Other professionals shared positive coping examples for youth in this pandemic. Exercise is a common recommendation. 

Besides exercise, Turner said positive coping tactics include spending time with family and having a schedule. 

One way to cope, according to Sirati, is for people to be compassionate with themselves.

Allison Bailey, a music teacher from Virginia, said she sees plenty of resilience among students.

“Most people are at least trying to be upbeat and trying to keep going,” said Bailey. “I think most people are really rising to the occasion as best as they can and not sort of, surrendering to it. ” 

Many families are talking, playing and enjoying each other’s company in a way they weren’t able to do in pre-pandemic times, when they were busy with their own lives.

Gilbert-Reed said parents can experience childhood again and have a new level of relationship with their children.

“There is power in stillness,” Gilbert-Reed said.

Peri Gilbert-Reed

Although people are spending more time with their families and much of that is fun, being forced to be together without many distractions or any place to escape worsen already existing trauma or other mental health issues.

“Not having space to just get away,” said Gilbert-Reed, adding that some young people are trapped in abusive or neglectful situations.

While Collins said people are slowing down and seeing each other more deeply, for some families, being forced to be together can be traumatic rather than a learning experience.

Locking ourselves inside right now has the value of protecting life, according to Véjar, but she said we may all run out of emotions and motivation because we need physical contact.

For young people especially, social contact is important for development, Véjar said, so being without gatherings and parties and other chances to connect in person will be a weight to bear.

This story was reported by Aileen Cevallos in Quito, Ecuador; Nisha Chandar-Nair in Lincoln, England; Chuying Huo in Ontario, Canada;  Katrina Machetta in Spring, Texas and Nivetha Nandakumar in Cardiff, Wales.  It was written by Katrina Machetta, Chuying Huo, Alyce Collett in Melbourne, Australia and Parnian Shahsavary in Tehran, Iran, who also made the illustration. Bilge Nur Güven in Istanbul contributed the photo.

Covid Mood is a global project by Youth Journalism International examining how the coronavirus pandemic of 2020 impacted mental health among the world’s young people. Its 17 news stories and accompanying photos and illustrations are by 21 students from a dozen nations on six continents. Together, they interviewed 56 teenagers and young adults in 18 countries and mental health professionals from five different nations. All Covid Mood stories are accessible here.

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