Special Report: Challenging time for youths who have the health of the planet on their minds

The majority of young people want Irish leaders to grasp opportunities that the Covid-19 crisis provides and tackle climate change a survey has found, writes Padraig Hoare
Special Report: Challenging time for youths who have the health of the planet on their minds

The majority of young people want Irish leaders to grasp opportunities that the Covid-19 crisis provides and tackle climate change, a survey has found, writes Padraig Hoare

Despite the major worries around their education and their own families due to the Covid-19 pandemic’s worldwide grasp, Ireland’s young people have the health of the planet on their minds -- and want the Government to take heed.

According to national youth organisation SpunOut’s comprehensive research on the effects of the pandemic on young people, almost 60% want national leaders to grasp the opportunities provided by the crisis and tackle climate change.

Overall, the Government’s response to the pandemic has been given an average of 7/10 by younger citizens, with the caveat that much more should be done when it comes to the environment and social justice.

Of the almost 1,400 young people surveyed across the 32 counties, 58% said the reduction of emissions was one of the major changes in society brought on by the crisis that they would like to see kept.

That was complemented by 25% believing a reduction in air travel was a priority.

SpunOut chief executive Ian Power said: “Recent elections and demonstrations have already revealed to us that young people care deeply about the climate crisis and biodiversity loss, but it was still a surprise to see it’’s something on their mind even in the middle of a global pandemic.

“Almost three in five young people prioritised the lower carbon emissions as one of the features of the lockdown they want to continue in any ’’new normal’’. It’’s likely it’’s not just the environmental impact of the lower carbon emissions they wish to keep, but the improved quality of life too with much less traffic on our roads and the elimination of long commutes as people work from home.”

Over half of young people have insisted that social care is improved once the crisis has passed, with almost 54% saying more support for the vulnerable cohorts of society should be Government priority.

More than a quarter of young people also said learning and working from home should be retained on a larger scale when the crisis has passed, while 29% said a reduction in commuting should be a consideration.

Adherence to the Government and medical scientists’ social distancing measures has been taken very seriously by young people, with almost 92% reporting they had followed the guidelines. Just under 6% said they had not.

Of the 1,368 people surveyed, 25% were from Dublin, 11% from Cork, with 868 identifying as a woman and 463 as a man. Just over 1% identified as non-binary, and 1% as transgender.

Almost 37% of respondents said they or their families were relying on the Government’s emergency pandemic wage payment through the crisis.

Two-thirds of young people said watching television and film was a coping mechanism for their reduced social interaction, with more than a third each exercising indoors or outdoors.

Going for walks has played a crucial role, with almost 60% taking advantage of the two-kilometre radius to engage in outdoor pursuits.

Modern technology has played a major role in social interaction, with more than half saying texting, video calls and other forms of communication had been an outlet for them.

However, in worrying findings by SpunOut, some 21% have turned to alcohol to help them through the crisis, while more than 5% said they had used drugs for the same purpose.

Almost 12% are watching pornography, while 11% are engaging in so-called ‘sexting’.

Mr Power said: “The survey reveals young people continue to express their sexuality during lockdown and in our view that is healthy. Adhering to physical distancing means expressing their sexuality slightly differently for the moment and we’’d encourage young people who are choosing to use porn to understand it doesn’’t accurately portray real-life sex and remind people that sexting carries the risk of intimate images being shared at a later date without their consent.”

A third of young people believe they will need counselling or other support during the pandemic or in its aftermath, while just under a third are confident they will not. The final third are adopting a wait-and-see attitude, they said.

Of the 295 respondents that are doing their Leaving Cert, the anxiety of contracting Covid-19 or passing it onto relatives is palpable, with 86% fearing it could happen.

Mr Power said: “Our advice to students is to try to focus on what is inside their control. We know it is difficult to stick to a routine right now, particularly for students who may have to care for younger or older family members.

“A lot of students are struggling to have their basic needs met, but if they can we would encourage students to try to get a good night’’s sleep, to get 30 minutes of intense daily exercise and to eat as healthily as they can.

“It’’s a good idea to make a realistic study timetable that’’s achievable in the current circumstances and to practice by doing as many past year exam papers as they can in the three months between now and the beginning of the exams.”

Young people find lives are in flux as lockdown continues

By Jack Eustace

World-changing events have a tendency to leave deep marks and memories on those who live through them. This is never more true than for young people, whose lives and prospects are shaped by the big moments in which they come of age.

It was with this in mind that SpunOut.ie, Ireland’s online youth information service, decided to conduct a wide-ranging survey of young people aged 16-25 to learn more about their hopes, fears and experiences of life in a society grappling with COVID-19. We received 1,084 responses from young people all across Ireland.

Health and wellbeing

One of the most stark findings of our survey was that A majority of young people consider their family units to be ‘especially vulnerable’ to COVID-19. Almost 3 in 5 (57%) respondents said they have a member of their household with a heightened risk of infection, with 15% reporting themselves as immuno-compromised. This anxiety for the health of loved ones and their own, understandably feeds into the overall impact of the pandemic on young people’s mental health, with a third of respondents saying they will need extra counselling or other supports as a result of their current circumstances.

Yet with access to ordinary means of support so limited, young people are more reliant than ever on coping mechanisms they can engage with at home. When asked how they are dealing with anxiety or stress, some of the most popular answers are also the most familiar:

68% are listening to music, 67% watching TV or movies, and 59% going for walks when they can. However, a fifth of respondents also report using alcohol to get through the crisis.

While the majority of young people are engaging in healthy coping mechanisms, policy- makers would be wise to note the increased desire for mental health services which will become apparent once social distancing guidelines have been lifted or relaxed. Ireland’s youth mental health budget lagged far behind those of comparable countries before the pandemic, so a decision to scale up our support capacity now will be necessary to prevent the system’s capacity being overwhelmed in the coming months.

Leaving Cert

One of the great causes of stress for young people is, of course, the Leaving Certificate. Approximately a quarter of those surveyed were due to sit their final exams this summer.

More than most, their lives have been thrown into flux as plans for postponed written exams slowly filter through causing confusion and uncertainty. The clear need these students have is for information and support, as our survey indicates there are many questions about the exams which have yet to be answered to their satisfaction.

A huge number (88%) of Leaving Cert students report they fear the prospect of catching COVID-19 while sitting their exams. We must see more urgency from the Government as to how the Department of Education intends to hold nationwide examinations in a way that is safe for all. Also troubling is the number of students — 12% — who have had no online classes since their schools shut their doors. Even among those who have had engagement with their teachers, a significant cohort report not having the necessary technology to fully engage with remote learning. Just less than half of Leaving Cert students say they do not have a reliable laptop, and 40% describe their WiFi connectivity as inadequate for learning.

Against this backdrop, The Government’s plans to increase the supply of information technology to students is welcome — but it will require substantial investment if there is any hope of bridging the digital divide between those students who can learn at home with ease, and those who cannot.

Work and income

Another understandable finding is the effect the pandemic is having on young people’s incomes, both personally and on a household level. Just over a third of respondents report having lost full-time (8%) and part-time (26%) work since the crisis began. Yet even these figures obscure the true impact, given that half of young people were already not in work due to unemployment or status as full-time students prior to lockdown. The impact on young people who were in work when the crisis started is therefore severe, with 37% telling us they are currently reliant on the State’s emergency COVID-19 support payments either personally or through their family.

There are clear lessons for the Government here when it comes to the post-crisis rebuilding of our society. As always, the rate of youth unemployment is primarily influenced by the general performance of the economy, and young workers are suffering through no fault of their own. Those in power must focus on reflating the economy so that jobs are once again available, and not fall victim to lazy stereotypes of young people being unable or unwilling to work.

In particular, the existence of a large group of young people who would work if circumstances allowed should spur a major investment in apprenticeship places and back- to-education funding. In this way, the coming recession need not become another lost period for younger workers. It could instead be a moment in which they are supported to increase their skills and develop new qualifications for when economic growth returns.

Looking ahead

What do Ireland’s young people make of the caretaker Government’s crisis management? In general, Our survey indicated that most young people are supportive of the Government’s handling of the pandemic: 73% indicate a high level of satisfaction. However, Leaving Cert students are significantly more likely to show displeasure than young people in general.

An overwhelming majority of respondents (92%) also indicate that they have been following social distancing guidelines since their introduction. In terms of when the current restrictions might be lifted, young people generally anticipate a long wait. Most feel that life will not return to normal until after the end of summer, with nearly 30% thinking it may be next year before normality resumes.

Yet views are not all negative, and most young people see some upsides to the current situation. More than half of all respondents cite lower carbon emissions and higher government support for the vulnerable as two features of lockdown they would like to see carried forward into post-crisis Ireland. Ultimately leaving us with an interesting, and hopeful insight into the values of young people in Ireland today.

* Jack Eustace is Governance & Policy Officer with SpunOut.ie

Life during the pandemic is a whirlwind of emotions

Courtney Jordan, 20, from Co Carlow

As someone who would have a lot of health-related concerns, life during a pandemic has been a whirlwind of emotions, but the main one has been anxiety.

When the virus started to spread in Europe, and the first case was diagnosed here in Ireland, I was not concerned whatsoever. I am not in the age demographic that causes most concern, so what did I have to worry about?

But then I realised that I am immunocompromised and at a greater risk, having undergone chemotherapy recently. The chemo used to treat my cancer was particularly harsh on my lungs so my respiratory system is already under pressure. This has definitely added to my anxiety in recent weeks.

I am about to finish up my first year of college, and this is not how I had envisaged it. Discussing it with friends, we’ve spoken about how we should be having lunch by the lake, planning what to do with our summers, and putting in long shifts in the library to meet looming deadlines.

Instead, I’ve been having lunch in the garden, planning what I’ll watch on Netflix that night, and searching feverishly for the motivation to read, much less write essays.

I have been diagnosed with and treated for several mental illnesses, and these can have an impact on how I learn.

When classes stopped at first, I found it hard to motivate myself to work. I was not around friends to attend classes with and the classes that I did have to engage with were pre-recorded so in no way interactive.

Being at home all the time has made finding the drive to do college work incredibly difficult. I share a small house with three family members, including my younger brother who is diagnosed with Autism, so to say that my home environment does not accommodate learning is an understatement.

I work at home, mostly on my bed, with no desk or quiet space to read, which is sort of essential for an English degree.

Despite the struggles I have encountered during this odd time, it has made me so more grateful for the things I have.

I consider myself incredibly lucky to have friends worth missing so much, the facilities in college I cannot avail of now, and the freedom I used to believe I didn’t have.

I’m also incredibly grateful for the fact that I have a home to safely isolate in, and the amenities to keep me going while I do it.

While life in lockdown has been unusual, it has not been entirely unenjoyable. We have been forced to become more inventive with our communication, and I could get used to late night conference calls with my friends.

Overall, I like to think I will learn from this strange lifestyle, but will definitely welcome my “new normal” with open arms, whenever that comes.

Pandemic unlike anything we have ever seen

Criodán Ó’’Murchú, 22, from Co Westmeath

The coronavirus pandemic has been difficult for myself, and many other students around the country, to adjust to.

Upon the news that universities were to close, I returned home to Mullingar from NUI Galway as soon as possible. With that, I was focused on bringing home my essentials, and unfortunately left certain notes and data for my final year project behind. I rationalised that in the scheme of things, these were not that important in relation to my own health.

I was quite happy to be home for two main reasons. Firstly, during university, I had worked from first to third year on weekends, with little opportunity to spend time at home with my family. This break, although for non-ideal circumstances, meant I had a chance to come home and reconnect with my family a bit.

Secondly, I had been dealing with anxiety and physical health issues for the past few months. This odd situation, whilst certainly not ideal for some and considerably more difficult for others, has given me the time to remove myself from the stressful environment of university, allowed me to take some time for myself and, maybe somewhat selfishly, events and gatherings being cancelled has allowed my anxiety to subside somewhat. It has also given me the opportunity to rescue a dog and his companionship has been most helpful at this time.

The adjustment to studying from home has been difficult. I am incredibly privileged to have a quiet, individual space to study, and access to technology, like my laptop. Many students in higher education and school are without these resources and so I cannot see how it’s fair to expect people to complete their exams or studies. That said, there is no substitute for learning in person (and I’m not just saying that as a would-be teacher!).

Students around the country have been finding it much more difficult than normal to focus on their work and exams. This pandemic is unlike anything we have ever seen in this generation. I’m heavily involved in science outreach and communication and as a hobby, I volunteer with science outreach groups such as Cell Explorers. These provide me with an opportunity to connect with the general public and help explain the world around us. As a result of this pandemic, people have begun to engage with science communication like never before and I feel it’s important to help ensure people have access to the correct information.

At times like this, clear, understandable explanations around the science of viruses, how they spread and what flattening the curve is all about is more important than ever. As a final year chemistry student, I can help ensure people have the correct and reliable information on hand.

Leaving Cert students disadvantaged due to restrictions

Abbie Somers, 17, Co Dublin

Since the closure of schools in mid-March, I’ve had a lot of trouble adjusting to living at home and social distancing, trying to balance my leisure time and study for the Leaving Cert.

Personally, I believe that I work best when I’m in a school environment. I find that I thrive in a classroom setting and while my attention span isn’t that great, it’s definitely better when I’m at a school desk with my peers, being taught face-to-face. Now, students have to learn how to cope with working from home, a place that in my experience, is significantly easier to get distracted in.

WhileI ’m typing this up late at night, I have my school books in my peripheral vision, but have made no move to open them. As someone who struggles with their mental health, I had found it difficult to stay motivated when I was actively going to school five days a week. Now, it’s even harder.

On a good day, I manage to submit one piece of work on time. On the bad days, nothing gets done. School, while a pain, was a welcomed environment for me because it was a place where I had to work. It was structured, and it was routine.

The only reason I’ve been able to get any work done at all during the pandemic is because, despite my lack of motivation, I feel increasingly anxious at the thought of any repercussions I could face for not handing something in. So, sure, on the outside it may look like I’m being quite lax about the situation at hand, when it’s really the complete opposite. You could label me as lazy, or even non-committal but the reality is that I’ve become so stressed about my exams and the deadlines that I’ve passed the point where I outwardly show that I care.

While my Leaving Cert is important, I’ve definitely been trying to prioritise my mental health over my exams. If sleeping in, playing games and painting to try to improve my mood and mental health is labelled as ‘lazy’, then call me lazy.

There are options for me if I don’t get the results I want. I can do a PLC, or repeat the exams if I’m incredibly unhappy with how they went. I can always find another way into college, so I’m trying to focus on both my mental and physical health as my top priority.

From having brief conversations with my classmates, I’ve been made aware that many of us are struggling with this new change of pace, so it’s important that we all support one another in these unprecedented times.

Leaving Cert students are all disadvantaged as a result of the coronavirus restrictions, some more than others, but we are all working towards the same goal. We all want to do the best we can, but we also have to remember to take care of ourselves and others during this period of uncertainty.

Take one day at a time - and remember the bigger picture

Caitlin Grant, 20, Co Dublin

The months leading up to the pandemic had been the busiest of my life. With university elections, volunteering, working, launching the climate justice fund and travelling abroad as a youth delegate, it hadn’t stopped.

Then all of a sudden it did.

Now not being able to leave the two kilometre radius, never mind the country itself, has been a huge challenge for me. Not being able to meet up with my friends or my boyfriend has been heartbreaking.

However, it has allowed me to take a breath and to take a step back from how chaotic my life had become. I’ve had the chance to plan my days in a way that suited me and to make sure I could take full advantage of the free time. To study, go for runs outside, talk to friends and family over the phone, and also to engage with my creative side.

It’s so easy to give up our passions when the world is constantly pulling us in different directions, but we now have the opportunity to rediscover them. I’ve started drawing, painting, dancing and even writing songs again, things that have made me happy in the past but somehow I’ve left behind. It’s inspiring to see so many people bring out their musical instruments and to hear footballs being kicked in their back gardens.

Never before have I felt so connected with the rest of the world. For the first time we’re all facing the same challenge and it feels like we’re all learning more together. We’ve all had to adapt to the circumstances by developing different ways of living in all aspects of our lives.

For example, my university exams have now turned into assignments and my lectures turned into zoom calls. It’s great to see so much innovation.

I’ve also never felt so isolated from the rest of the world. The little things like popping over to your friends, hugs, getting dressed up and even bumping into people on the street mean so much more to me now, but those things seem so far away.

Being a person who suffers from anxiety, I’ve been finding it hard not knowing when life will go back to normal. I’m grateful that I work in retail as it creates a structure and keeps my mind busy, but it can also be stressful. With staff members not being able to work because of underlying illnesses, there is more pressure on the remaining staff with added hours.

However, being an essential worker makes me feel important and empowered. I love being able to give what I can during this difficult time and to help people in my community.

As many of us are finding this time difficult, it’s important that we remember to reach out to others and get the support we need, whether it’s a conversation with someone close to us or using a support service.

I’m taking it one day at a time keeping in mind of the bigger picture, when we stay home we save lives.

Helplines and websites

  • Spunout.ie
  • Samaritans, phone 116 123, email jo@samaritans.ie
  • Jigsaw.ie, freephone 1800 544729 (Monday to Friday 1pm-5pm), text “call me” 086 180 3880, email help@jigsaw.ie
  • Teenline.ie, phone 1800 833 634 (lines open 8pm-11pm seven days, Wednesday 4pm-11pm), email info@teenline.ie, free text “Teen” to 50015


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