“It's long Covid in the mind, opposed to long Covid in the lungs."
That's how Dr Brendan O'Keeffe describes the real impact of Covid-19 on young people's mental health after he carried out an in-depth study in rural areas of Cork.
The lockdown of schools, cancellation of GAA matches, and closure of youth clubs/pubs has seriously curtailed their social interaction, with many spending far too much time on social media and others seriously worrying about the negative impact on their education.
Further traumas included being unable to attend a relative's funeral, worrying about older relatives' health and wellbeing, being lonely, catching the virus themselves, and financial problems within their own households as a result of job losses or decreased working hours.
Dr O'Keeffe, a respected academic, carried out the study on behalf of the registered charity Duhallow IRD (Integrated Resource Development).
The survey focused on how lockdowns affected 220 people, aged 16 to 35, living in very rural areas of mid- and north-west-Cork.
The experiences of young adults during Covid-19 lockdowns in the Duhallow/Lee Valley region is probably mirrored in many other rural parts of the country, but it's believed this is the first time they've been correlated in an academic study.
Of the total surveyed 51% said they 'believe their education has been delayed' and 9% felt they'd had fallen behind so much they would fail exams.
It also showed since lockdowns started their 'escape route' from previously having person-to-person contact shifted to interaction online.
“Over a third of respondents are playing more video games. These trends are negative in physical health terms. However, some are more active now spending more time walking,” Dr O'Keeffe said.
The focus group members also highlighted the cancellation and/or deferral of GAA matches and training, which is a big issue for young males in particular in rural areas.
As a result a lot said “we missed our friends”. It's hardly surprising, therefore, that 69% of the respondents listed the impact of all the above on their mental health.
A significant proportion also said they felt it was "unfair" how some media/peer commentators spoke about their alleged bad behaviour during lockdowns, with many pointing out that a number of them were actively involved in protecting older people.
In respect of the government's restrictions, 52% thought "they were just about right", while 11% thought they were "too strict" and a somewhat surprising 37% believed they "were not strict enough".
On a positive note, 75% of the young people surveyed said that during lockdowns they came to appreciate far more the wildlife and countryside which surrounds them.
Duhallow IRD chief executive Maura Walsh said HSE South has agreed to fund a full-time community mental health worker on foot of the survey's findings.
“The fall-out from Covid-19 has been massive for our young people," Ms Walsh said. "The HSE has said it will work with us and our own structures to cover the area for this, which stretches from Duhallow in north-west Cork down as far as Inchigeelagh in mid-Cork."