Covid-19 related mental health issues growing among the youth

The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic forced many people to stay at home due to restrictions in mobility.

While parents were happy about this development, little did they know that being locked down at home would become a growing problem, especially among the youth. They were forced to stop all their usual activities, which later led to stress, anxiety, among others.

Going online helped—attending online classes, talking to friends, family, enjoying online games—but was temporary and even became a double-edged sword. Fake news online changed their perspectives and only added to the trouble. Health issues also emerged as they forgot to become physically active because of too much screen time.

Dr. Cornelio Banaag Jr. Professor Emeritus, Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, University of the Philippines- Philippine General Hospital (UP-PGH) noted that even before the pandemic, an alarming global increase in mental health problems was already noted.

He said the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 10 to 20 percent of children and adolescents suffer from various forms of mental disorders, with most happening among adults starting at age 14 and remain unrecognized until it’s too late. The risk of suicide is highest in ages 15 to 24 years old.

Dr. Banaag cited a global school-based Student Health Survey done in collaboration with the WHO and private groups, including the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from January to March 2021. He said 17 percent of high school students (13 to 15 years old) attempted to commit suicide at least once, 12 percent admitted they seriously considered attempting suicide, and 11 percent made plans on how they would commit suicide.

“Social Media Envy” was also alluded to as a moderate significant predictor of symptoms of depression among Filipino high school students. Then came an emerging mental health crisis with a serious lack of mental health facilities (only 60) in the country, and only about 7 percent of all public and private hospitals have a psychiatric ward, and the ratio of mental health workers (psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers) with only two per 100,000 population.

The advent of Coronavirus 2019

“None of us realized we would deal with this difficult time. There is an invisible enemy that can only be seen in terms of morbidity and mortality numbers, which we constantly monitor in the news, further adding to the burden of mental health because of the negative news.”

How visible are these impacts on mental health? What can be seen are elevated levels of stress and anxiety. “A lot of people are now experiencing toxic anxiety, marked by signs such as constant worrying, changes in sleep and eating habits, changes in emotion.”

He pointed to factors that contributed to the rise of mental health problems, essentially those related to “uncertainty” and “isolation.”

In uncertainty, Dr. Banaag said no one knows how all these happened, how it started; it just descended on us, and no one knows when it will end. “The kids keep asking when they will go back to school and play with their playmates, the teenagers languish in their rooms wishing to meet their friends but cannot due to the pandemic. We’re scared to go out for fear of contracting the virus and if we get it, are we going to be hospitalized? For how long? Will our savings suffice? Too much uncertainty makes us feel we are not in control.”

When it comes to “isolation,” it is something horrible for Filipinos who are used to be connected to each other, he said, and it brought a lot of loneliness and grief.

Filipinos living in the new normal

People are now living in what is called a “new normal,” which Dr. Banaag referred to as a “constantly shifting normal.” He said distance learning and work from home became major sources of stress. Distance learning changed the context of school for both parents and children and presented unique challenges. “Unfortunately, going to school has become a matter of compliance now, not of learning.”

The “work from home” setup presented problems on managing and balancing responsibilities, especially for mothers where playing multiple roles added to their stress.  The pandemic also changed humans’ experiences of loss, grief and bereavement, Dr. Banaag said. When a family member gets sick or hospitalized, no one is allowed to be with them. “And when we lose them to Covid-19, we can’t even exercise the normal grieving process, another risk factor for depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder. There is so much complicated grief going around.”

In the Philippines, the pandemic’s impact on Filipino students’ mental health in terms of stress, depression, anxiety and impact of the event itself, based on a study by the Philippine One Health University Network and the Southeast Asian One Health University Network released in August 2021, showed that National Capital Region students experienced high levels of stress with 19 percent, 22 percent admitted feeling depressive symptoms, 36 percent admitted to anxiety, and close to 26 percent admitted to having a terrible time coping with the pandemic’s impact.

Compared to other students from other areas, Dr. Banaag said it did not change much but when compared to non-students, the numbers dropped to about 50 percent, which showed that students are the most stressed group, even higher than other groups like employees, farmers, and others.

And the instances of suicide among the youth is increasing. In “The State of the World’s Children 2021” by UNICEF, it said suicide is now the world’s 4th leading cause of death among 15 to 19-year-olds, almost 46,000 children aged 10 to 19 commit suicide annually, or one in every 11 minutes. “That’s scary, alarming and very, very sad.”

An important first step when suicide and depression is noticed is through “screening for depression” to prevent deeper mental health problems and suicide. “Screening helps provide accurate diagnosis, effective treatment and appropriate follow up.”

Young people taking action

They are aware of Y4MH or Youth for Mental Health, whose task is to push back the darkness beginning to envelop young people. The group called “Student Solidarity Network to Survive Covid-19 2020” wrote a petition for the issuance of Memorandum Order to implement other measures to address issues of accessibility, financial, physical and mental stress amid the Covid-19 pandemic. It’s a plea by students to not just look at their academic performance but also other concerns like poor Internet, unavailability of devices, poor learning conduciveness, physical, mental and financial stress on their families, coping with requirements.

In everything that is happening, Dr. Banaag said the WHO expressed it all: “There is no health without mental health.”

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