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Stella O'Malley: Young people have suffered so much this year - they need our support

Psychotherapist Stella O’Malley documents the impact Covid-19 has had on the mental health of young people and says the long-term picture is worrying.

Stella O'Malley Psychotherapist, writer and public speaker

“I LEFT SCHOOL on a Thursday in March, I didn’t say goodbye to anybody, I had no graduation, no debs, no holiday after the Leaving Cert with my mates. Now I’m stuck on Zoom in my bedroom at home in Moate when I should be in college living the high life in Dublin.”

Of the many people whose lives have been ruined by Covid-19 restrictions, the Leaving Cert students were pretty badly hit and Sarah’s story, a nineteen-year-old from Moate, is reflective of this sorry mess. 

As a psychotherapist, I see a lot of young clients and it is clear that their mental health is suffering as a consequence of our restricted lifestyles. When the lockdown first struck, many of us who were lucky enough not to have personal tragedies to deal with welcomed the lockdown.

It was the great global pause and we finally had the time to relax and hang out with our families. As children and teenagers are often over-scheduled, most of them benefitted from this break in their extra-curricular activities and enjoyed a rest from the relentless demands of performativity.

But now, eight months in, we all need more – baking bread and watching Netflix has become wearisome and boredom has set in. 

Most kids have got with the programme. They now know not to hug their granny and not to share their sweets. They remember to wash their hands and to keep their distance but, inevitably, many of these children are starting to falter.

A different school life

Junior Infants often fall a little in love with their teachers but this hasn’t happened this year as all the teachers are masked up. These Junior Infants have not had the warm welcome from a comfy teacher that most of us enjoyed and have learned instead to live in a cold and complicated world where smiles are hidden and sharing is no longer caring; sharing is apparently killing your friends. 

I launched Level 5 with my kids by making fairy buns (sure what else would I be doing?) but then, unbeknownst to me, my eleven-year-old took it upon himself to sneak a bun into school for his best friend.

His friend was afraid to eat the bun and ceremoniously – and appropriately – gave it back to my little boy and washed his hands. Strange days when a fairy bun is akin to a thread to health and well-being.

The kids who are in secondary school are also having a weird and disconnected experience as they wear masks all day. New friendships are difficult to form when we are all trying to limit contact.

Extra-curricular activities have stopped. Birthday parties are a small muted affair. Halloween was all but cancelled and Christmas is looking a bit precarious. 

Long-term implications

We are now moving into a situation where there will be a significant long-term psychological impact on this generation. Children are learning to fear other people and are becoming understandably germ-phobic.

The extraordinary reliance on screens to get us through this crisis will have a long-term impact. College kids already hate their online classes and many will drop out. 

There is an estimated 50% unemployment for the younger generation who are already under the cosh of the financial implications of the bank bailout during the global recession and are now on course to inherit the financial burden caused by this pandemic. 

They can’t get a job to pay for college by working in bars or restaurants. Few of them will ever be able to buy a house. This is the first generation – ever – that expects to be poorer than their parents.

But it is not only financial stress and isolation that are causing distress – the intergenerational fallout from the pernicious idea that young people’s parties are killing their grandparents is creating a weird animosity – this time it isn’t brother against brother but teenager against granny.

The teenagers are told that they are selfish for wanting to meet their boyfriend or their girlfriend and that they are lucky to be able to have the technology to get an education from their bedroom.

But they aren’t lucky; they’re suffering. They feel isolated, bored and anxious; they are losing friendships; their parents’ small businesses are going bankrupt; their education is a turgid affair and their reliance on technology is becoming an uncontrollable beast.

It’s hard to keep your spirits up when you feel lonely, disconnected and frightened. Human connection keeps us mentally strong and this is why we need it; the famous ‘Blitz spirit’ during World War II was nurtured from a sense of community.

An end in sight

It has been shown that mankind can handle almost anything so long as we have a reason ‘why’. But now that even the medical experts are arguing about which is the best way to move forward when it comes to Covid-19, our reason why is becoming hazy. 

We need to centre our mental health into all future decisions as we can’t continuously squeeze all the fun out of life without some emotional fallout. We need our friends, we need our communities and we need to have celebrations that lift us out of the daily grind. 

When Covid-19 first struck, we were willing to do almost anything to fight it. The Spanish stayed in their apartments for months. The French closed down society. The Italians perhaps suffered the most in Europe and the haunting video clips from Italy encouraged most of us to follow the rules and do what we were told.

We did our best despite the challenges to our mental health because we understood that we were in the middle of a pandemic and needs must. Meanwhile Sweden rolled out a different approach and now, eight months later, few of us feel the same sense of clarity as we did last March.

Now we’re not so sure that we are in the middle of a pandemic – indeed many of us think that maybe we’re at the very beginning of one. Others believe we’re at the beginning of the end – who knows?

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None of us can guess what lies in store for us in 2021 or even 2022. The alluring idea that we would ‘get Covid done’ – just like the British hoped that they would ‘get Brexit done’ – has faded away to a wisp of smoke.

We now realise that we are unlikely to get rid of Covid, and so we need instead to adjust our minds and centre our emotional health by learning to live alongside it.  

Stella O Malley is a psychotherapist and an author. Her first book ‘Cotton Wool Kids’ was published in 2015, ‘Bully-Proof Kids’ was released in 2017 and her latest book ‘Fragile: why we’re feeling more anxious, stressed and overwhelmed’ was released last year. She hosts a podcast for parents called Secrets of the Motherworld. 

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About the author:

Stella O'Malley  / Psychotherapist, writer and public speaker

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