Lockdown in 2020 was a dark and difficult time for many. The disruption of everyday life and the isolation from others had everyone, especially children and young people, feeling scared, lonely and completely lost. Entering back into our bubbles now in 2021, will we see the same issues arise?
Our national issues surrounding youth and poor mental health have predated the COVID-19 outbreak. Psychologists and academics have warned of a “growing mental health pandemic” across the nation in a commentary, Youth Mental Health in Aotearoa New Zealand: Greater Urgency Required.
The piece discussed some of the shocking outcomes of the Youth19 survey of 7,721 school students (school year groups 9-13). From the total cohort, 29% of females and 17% of males, reported experiencing symptoms of depression. This is almost double the rate found in 2012 (17% and 9% respectively).
The Youth19 study found 38% of Māori and 37% of Pasifika females reported depression compared to 24% of Pākehā females. This highlights the growing ethnic inequities in mental health.
The commentary expresses concern that the “yet unknown impacts of Covid-19 on youth are likely to be extensive and enduring, exacerbating already declining mental wellbeing”. As told by director of the University of Otago’s Multidisciplinary Health & Development Research Unit, Professor Richie Poulton, “Covid-19 has added fuel to the fire”.
The survey was conducted as Youthline experienced a 50% increase in the number of texts from young people contacting its Helpline for support during that time.
The most common contacts were related to suicide, depression, anxiety and self-harm. More than 72% of all respondents agreed that COVID-19 and the 2020 lockdown had an impact on their mental health, most commonly expressed by those under 25 years old. This was evident in adolescents aged 12-18 as well, who significantly reported “missing face to face contact”.
Aotearoa needs strong leadership and initiatives to take action towards reaching SDG 3. Initiatives such as The Ministry of Education working with partners to develop a package of options so that students can access online education from home. This helped increase the number of students who have internet access and devices, and distributed hard copy packs of materials for different year levels. These tools aimed to provide families with practical ways to support their children’s education and mental wellbeing, especially during times of isolation.
During these times of uncertainty and disruption, efforts to promote greater wellbeing and brighter futures for our increasingly vulnerable youth population are even more critical. The importance of this SDG is rapidly growing from the challenges we currently face. A huge priority for Government and health officials now is to protect and promote mental wellbeing for all youth.