Don’t underestimate what students have lost during the pandemic

Rites of passage failed to launch this year, from sex to graduation. We have a moral duty to help students find meaning in their lives, says Bertus Jeronimus

March 4, 2021
Young people at a festival; we should not forget how much young people have sacrificed during the pandemic and place them high on the priority list
Source: iStock

This first year of the coronavirus pandemic has brought great loss and suffering, along with the struggle of adapting to new social routines. Plus, of course, 115 million became infected and 2.5 million people died. Europe is largely in lockdown while mutations of the virus are spreading around the globe.

It is against this backdrop that adolescents and young adults (aged 16 to 25) are figuring out how to relate to others, spread their wings and find a place for themselves. Simone de Beauvoir beautifully captured young people’s special position in society thus: “One spring a year, and only one youth in life.”

Youth is a transformative phase of development in which we rebel, experiment and investigate how society works – all while acquiring the skillset to build relationships and contribute to society. Young people author their personal narrative, who they are and what they can do, and use interpersonal interactions to grow differentiated adult personalities. Young people are usually, at this point in their lives, laying the groundwork for a healthy and meaningful life. But this process has come under extreme pressure and, without proper action, that could translate into future problems.

THE Campus resource: Helpful practices to boost student well-being online

Colourless days ticking away

A key ingredient of horror stories is an isolated place. Social distancing has quarantined youth in their homes, increasingly alienated and lonely, eyeing strangers a little more warily than before. A full year of downtime and restricted freedom evaporated most contextual structure and disconnected our students from their peers, friends, family, teachers, sports, nightlife, parties, sleepovers, side jobs, internships, travel, festivals and picnics in the park. All outlets closed. This may seem minor compared to the tragedies playing out in intensive care units and nursing homes, but to young people, it means the world.

Students usually spend most of their time accompanied by peers, who surpass parents as a key source of intimacy and support. But now they spend most of their time alone. Rites of passage failed to launch, from dates and sex (which typically occur within peer groups) to graduation, jobs, trips and celebrations. How can you build an adult life when you stay at home and do little else?  

Today, most students around the globe are grieving and experiencing loneliness, pessimism about their future, worry about their close relatives getting sick and loss of motivation for activities they previously enjoyed. One-third report anxiety and/or sleep problems, irritability, listlessness and depression − and since the end of 2020, these numbers have been on the rise.

Substance abuse became common to cope with stress, loneliness and boredom, and may turn into lifelong addiction. Excessive sedentary time translated into obesity, which they carry into their future.

Vulnerable youth reach their “tipping point” earlier, and without proper care their mental health can deteriorate rapidly. European youth mental health facilities report increases in acute psychological crisis (more than 60 per cent in some regions) and more complex problems, from severe depression and suicidal thoughts to self-harm, acute anorexia and psychosis, along with a rise in sexual abuse and neglect.

Youth mental health problems often have far-reaching consequences. They hamper educational attainment, the forming of relationships and getting and maintaining a job, which increase the odds of a dire economic future and lower self-esteem, because they feel they have little to contribute to society.

We should be particularly mindful of underprivileged students, who are prone to exploitation, abuse, hidden anxiety, educational delays and dropout − and already had to work harder anyway. When positive (and legal) avenues to status and stimulation are closed, more youngsters are lured into risky and criminal behaviour, as indicated by the age-crime curve and the riots we witnessed in Europe and the United States.

Too many students have no support network, or someone to ask for help, because everyone has been told to reduce contact with people during lockdown. Even if you prefer pure economic arguments, it would be wise to invest in this coronavirus generation now to prevent enormous future costs.

THE Campus resource: Pastoral care for students in the digital classroom

Purpose and meaning

I call on all with influence to prioritise young people in pandemic policies because they suffer most from distress, adjustment and missed opportunities. We have a moral duty to help students participate in society on an equal footing and find meaning and purpose in the patterned activities of their daily lives. That is civilisation.

Students need teachers, sports coaches and others as gatekeepers to identify problems, refer them to professionals, develop talent and stimulate positive self-talk.

Remote learning is not a good substitute for social interaction; students can only truly develop and learn when they feel safe and seen. Teachers provide students with routine and help them understand that symptoms of mental health issues are completely normal during a pandemic. They can also encourage creative outlets (music, dance, drawing), exercise, connecting with others and focusing on what they can control. Most of all, teachers and lecturers can help students see that they can either drag their feet, kick and scream, or they can regroup and adapt.

Let us pressure our governments to prioritise youth well-being and education next to the medical-economic considerations that dominate our strategies. There is only one youth in life, and most of us spend more time in retirement than in childhood and adolescence combined. This short timespan could make 2021 seem insurmountable, but together we can reassure our students that this pandemic will eventually be history, and meanwhile the sun will still come up and the world will still spin. Together, we can make it.

Bertus Jeronimus is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Groningen. He holds a PhD in psychiatry and is working on gaining a better understanding of the co-development of personality, subjective well-being and internalising problems. 

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