The Covid-19 pandemic has contributed to a build-up of mental health and emotional pressures that will leave a devastating legacy on our young people.
While our elders suffered the most at the beginning of the pandemic, young people will experience damaging long-term effects. Their developmental milestones have been impacted severely by successive lockdowns, school closures, and suspension of recreational activities, and it’s time to prioritise their needs.
Teachers have reported young people timidly coming back into the classroom in the last year after cocooning in their homes with family members with underlying health conditions.
These young people had been cut off from their friends for an extended period, during which relationships and friend groups had changed.
They still had to socially distance and had the ongoing anxiety of contracting the virus and bringing it home. This was a huge burden to place on teenagers, and it is clear when speaking to teachers there is an inequality in how Covid-19 has impacted young people, something which has yet to be fully explored.
People of all ages were already under enormous pressure pre-pandemic. There is ample evidence of this from organisations like Mental Health Ireland, Pieta House, and Jigsaw. The College of Psychiatrists of Ireland recently reported a recent major rise in mental health referrals and relapses.
Life pre-pandemic had become pressurised, with a pace that was unsustainable. I could see it through my work with Narrative 4 Ireland, a national youth empathy education organisation.
For some, the pandemic has offered some respite, but for many young people, it has caused further isolation and impacted the development of critical social and emotional skills.
The focus on economic recovery and supports is understandable; there is absolutely no doubt we need to get on top of the economic end of things, especially the jobs and housing crises that are disproportionately affecting young people.
Still, the pandemic’s social and emotional impact needs equal attention. We need an emotional recovery, also. This includes appropriate spaces and supports, whether that be counselling or other ways to connect with ourselves and each other. I think there is a challenge of social leadership here for those of us who can step up to the plate.
I don’t think we should aim to get back to where we were, as it simply wasn’t working. Rates of anxiety and depression were already increasing. It was clear things needed to change.
The added pressures of the pandemic mean we need a societal reset that prioritises national wellbeing. We need to give people, especially young people, the tools to be well, be resilient and practise self-care.
We all have our own story of how we have been affected. Some of us have lost loved ones, some have lost their jobs, some are desperately lonely, and plenty of us are struggling with the transition back into socialising.
Some of us have had a chance to pause and reconsider, to re-evaluate and appreciate and to make decisions about how we want our lives to be. These stories matter, and it is important to give space to young people to voice them. Sharing them through safe, facilitated spaces can create the conditions for empathy, connection and, ultimately, healing.
In recent months, the National Educational Psychology Service issued guidelines to schools to support students reconnecting after Covid-19 closures. It said, "stories can shape our future with research showing that telling stories of struggles that turn out well can give people the hope they need to live productive lives in the aftermath of major life challenges".
It may sound overly simplistic, but intention-led, evidence-based activities that give space for young people to listen, connect and learn from each other can be extremely cathartic.
Cultivating listening skills is a core part of Narrative 4’s work, and it’s clear we need to stop and listen to each other more. Not just listen, but hear each other in real and authentic ways. The results can be life-changing.
This is something we do at Narrative 4 by offering free or subsidised training for teachers, guidance counsellors and youth workers as accredited Story Exchange facilitators. We have trained hundreds online over the past year, and it is encouraging to see the large and growing demand for this approach to societal wellbeing.
As a country, we have been through a lot, and we have a long way to go, but the pandemic has shown us the collective spirit that is out there to support each other.
I think that momentum needs to be continued, as this is a pivotal crossroads where we can change Ireland for the better. There is no better place to start than with our young people.
- Dr James Lawlor is the director of Narrative 4 Ireland, a Limerick-based national youth empathy education charity. www.narrative4.ie