There is no doubt that teenagers and young people are struggling mentally during the COVID-19 pandemic, but what are the real causes of this? Are people only just noticing the decline in mental health or is it a direct consequence of ‘lockdown’ all over the world?

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to periods of ‘lockdown’ where people were advised to remain at home, unless they were going to the shops for food or exercising (for no more than an hour). However, as this ‘lockdown’ begins to ease, and we all go back to school, we need to understand what everyone has been experiencing, as well as how children and young people can return to ‘normal’. 

Professor Mireille Toledano, Director of the Mohn Centre for Children’s Health and Wellbeing at Imperial College London, said: “For most of us, the pandemic has meant increased screen-time as we work, learn and socialise primarily through computers and mobile devices. For teenagers, opportunities for physical activity have decreased, and they have been unable to socialise with friends. School closures and social distancing measures are likely to have had a huge impact on the behaviour of young people. As adolescence is a period of developmental change in terms of biology and brain function, teenagers are particularly vulnerable to poor mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Essentially, teenagers are much more susceptible to mental health problems, because of our growing and changing brains. Staying at home and not being able to see or talk to our friends, or socialise at all has had a huge impact on our wellbeing and there isn’t much we can do about that.

There is, however, an alternate explanation for changes in mental health during this time. There is a possibility that lockdown actually improved some people’s mental health and that the true decline came from the stress of school and exams. Before we went into lockdown, there was so much uncertainty around our GCSEs and A-Levels, and we were told so many different things, such as “your exams won’t be cancelled, you’ll be back in a few weeks!” This clearly turned out to be false: we didn’t go back to school, and our exams were cancelled (which most of us knew was going to happen anyway). Maybe this decline in mental health comes from the stress of uncertainty, or from being told so many different things. Maybe the effects of this only started to show themselves during the lockdown, or maybe our parents only started to notice because they were forced to spend every waking moment with us.

Children and young people have gone back to school now, and many are now reporting that their mental health is worse than it was during lockdown. The Young Minds charity carried out a survey of 2,011 young people with a history of mental health problems between Friday 15th September and Wednesday 30th September, shortly after schools had reopened. “69% of respondents described their mental health as poor now that they are back at school, which has risen from 58% who described their mental health as poor before returning to school.”

This may be a result of the changing circumstances, compared to the ones we faced before having to stay home for 6 months. It may be because of the sudden switch back to old routines, which we had forgotten during lockdown. Many students facing exams have been feeling increasingly stressed  because of the uncertainty around work we have missed and whether we will be able to catch up in time for our GCSEs and A-levels. Education has been the same for everyone since primary school, so young people have set expectations of what our days will consist of. Not much has changed in our school lives since the age of 4, so this sudden drastic change may be what is causing an increase in the mental health problems faced by young people all over the UK.

Even though our ‘full lockdown’ is over, threats of Coronavirus are still severe, and being back at school may be making our anxiety worse. At least during lockdown, people felt safe in the comfort of their own homes, but now we are forced to get on buses and trains, where we see people without masks on, and where we worry that we will catch something and bring it home to our families. We know that catching COVID won’t have as much of an effect as it will on those with underlying health conditions, but if we catch it, we could pass it on to someone who does, and that could kill them. We constantly face this stress, so no wonder mental health issues have increased since going back to school.

Now facing threats of a second lockdown, young people are feeling more anxious than ever. There is so much uncertainty at the moment, especially with increased risks of COVID and having gone up to a ‘Tier 2’ lockdown. How are we expected to remain unfazed and continue with our work, when we don’t know what’s going to happen in the next few months? How are we expected to cope during COVID, when we can’t even cope with our mental health?