The parallel pandemic: Covid-19 and the mental health impacts on New Zealand young people

When Covid-19 came to New Zealand, and level 4 lockdown abruptly followed, Sharonika Prasad lost much more than just her day-to-day freedom.

Aged 19, newly moved out of the home in which she’d long carried a heavy load of responsibilities, and starting a degree in occupational therapy at Auckland University of Technology North Shore, Prasad suddenly felt robbed of the milestones she’d just passed.

“At home I’m helping my dad with running the house, paying the bills … and [paying off] his big debt. I do the cooking, cleaning, and then I was going to my mum’s and doing some for her too.

“It’s hard, and I’ve been doing it for a long time. I had to make a decision – stew on this or move on. I moved on.”

The first blow landed March 23 last year, when Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern told the country everyone, unless doing essential work or accessing essential services, must stay home for at least the next month.

Prasad’s degree classes, which she’d attended in person for just two weeks, went online, where they’d stay for the rest of the year – she eventually re-sat a couple of papers over summer because she “didn’t cope well with online learning”.

Lockdown cost her dad his job of 14 years.

And her housemate told Prasad the stay-at-home orders meant she had to move out, forcing the teen back to her dad’s place in Manurewa.

“I felt like my independence had been stolen from me.”

She’s one of many.

Just like a hardworking go-getter from South Auckland, young people around the world have found themselves swept up in a tide of challenge and change just as they reach the final steps to adulthood.

And although the young are at lower risk of severe health outcomes from an infectious disease that’s brought despair to almost every corner of the world, experts fear a mental health pandemic among young people is running parallel to its physical health counterpart.

Vaccines light a path to a future free of a virus that has taken almost three million lives worldwide.

Rapid solutions for the mental harm, especially to the young, sparked by efforts to curb Covid-19’s spread appear more elusive.

“The pandemic’s impact on mental health throughout our society will likely outlive Covid-19”,Canadian mental health researchers wrote in The Conversation this month, raising particular concern for the young.

“In terms of high-risk groups [during the pandemic] from a mental health perspective, early evidence suggests the age trends are inverted, where young people are at the highest risk of poor mental health outcomes.”

An ocean away and next door

Thirty per cent.

That’s the share of Canadians aged between 15 and 34 found to have clinically significant levels of anxiety during the pandemic, according to a study published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry last month.

The number falls to 27 per cent for 35- to 54-year-olds and just 14 per cent for over 55s.

The study doesn’t cross the Pacific, but youth-focused organisations here have similar cause for concern.

Forty-seven per cent of 1400 8- to 18-year-olds surveyed by The Office of the Children’s Commissioner reported one negative about last year’s lockdown was missing friends and dealing with tough family dynamics, while 12 per cent admitted to mental health challenges and 10 per cent struggled with remote learning.

Mental health conditions among Aotearoa youth have already doubled in the past decade, with experts sounding a call to action in September over what they call “a silent pandemic of psychological distress” already escalating among young people around the world.

Almost a quarter of 7721 Kiwi teens in 2019’s Youth19 survey reported symptoms of depression – double the rate in 2012, experts, including John Key’s former chief science adviser Sir Peter Gluckman, noted in a report for Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures at the University of Auckland.

Rainbow young people and Māori and Pasifika females are especially vulnerable, with 57 per cent, 38 per cent and 37 per cent respectively reporting depression.

Six per cent of the teens surveyed said they’d attempted suicide in the previous year, and New Zealand has long battled a high youth suicide rate – at times the highest in the OECD for teens aged 15 to 19 – although suicides in that age range fell from 73 to 59 in the year to June, according to the Office of the Chief Coroner.

The Youth-19 survey took place before the traumas of Covid-19 and its associated restrictions, Sir Peter and his co-authors wrote.

But the as-yet-unknown impacts of the pandemic on youth are likely to be “extensive and enduring”, exacerbating already declining mental wellbeing.

“These issues predated Covid-19”, co-author Professor Richie Poulton, who leads the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Research Unit, said at the time.

“But Covid came along and just poured psychological gasoline on an already vulnerable group.”

'The jobs had disappeared'

Part of the reason they’re so vulnerable?

Fewer years of life simply means fewer experiences of life, from its highs and lows to its ever-present possibility of change.

“When you’re older you have a sense things can change quickly”, Julie Moore, of the Graeme Dingle Foundation, says.

“It’s quite a big thing to take in [so much change] when you’re young.”

Then there are all the other pressures that come with being young, among them navigating social media, relationships, taking on tertiary study and finding a job, she says.

A rapid evidence and policy brief for the Covid-19 Youth Recovery Plan 2020-2022 produced in June last year for Te Hiringa Hauora/Health Promotion Agency – a Crown entity which leads and supports health promotion initiatives – notes evidence shows young people are more at risk of adverse psychological, social, health, economic and educational effects after disasters.

They’re at a developmentally heightened time of vulnerability to mental illness, with the brain not yet fully developed.

Some young people also faced the challenge of living in toxic environments during lockdown; some had no access to digital technology at a time of physical isolation from others.

And all are at the risk of being hardest hit by the pandemic’s impact on employment, according to the International Labour Organisation, and research “consistently demonstrates” unemployment at an early age can increase the likelihood of later joblessness and limit lifetime earning potential.

Unsurprisingly the relationship between economic health and mental health is “inextricably linked”, the brief notes.

Basically, Moore says, the pandemic just “added a whole new layer of things to be anxious about”.

As the research and evaluation manager at the 25-year-old Graeme Dingle Foundation, she led a project asking young people involved or previously involved in their programmes – the foundation helps 26,000 young people build resilience and mental wellbeing each year – to talk about their lockdown experience.

There was lots of anxiety, struggles with motivation and, later, guilt, questions about identity and dashed hopes, she says.

“Some of them had really strong plans and they couldn’t continue with them, because the jobs had disappeared with Covid.”

The teacher who made all the difference

Jacob Collins’ job didn’t disappear.

He wants to be a PE teacher and, in time, a cop.

But his motivation did.

“I was going to go to uni this year”, says Collins, of his plans before his final year at Marlborough Boys’ College collided with the deadliest pandemic in a century.

“But I was in the wrong mindset last year, and it was definitely because of Covid. I was worn out.”

His first, goal-driven weeks of year 13 were awesome, he says, but lockdown hit the self-proclaimed social butterfly hard.

He “began to feel hopeless” and fell into bad habits such as staying up, and subsequently sleeping, late, Collins says.

Fortunately, a teacher spotted through the video call lens that Collins “wasn’t myself” and arranged a one-on-one chat.

“She was such an idol and got me back into some sense of learning … a learning assistant [then] Zoomed me every day and made me get out of bed and fall back into a routine.

“I felt that I was being taken care of and loved from both [my teacher] and my learning assistant.”

Although he later earned a $13,000 scholarship to study at university, the 18-year-old found himself second-guessing his plans after lockdown ended.

“It’s the decision-making that’s been the hardest thing, [and] not being able to have that freedom … having that padlock on you from the outside world was tough.”

Collins, a Graeme Dingle Foundation youth ambassador who went through the foundation’s Career Navigator programme in year 11 and still meets up with his
mentor, is instead working as a vintage cellar hand at a winery.

“I’ve met some cool people, who have given me a job, and I’ve gotten some life experience. And now I’m thinking of going to uni next year.”

Collins is on track, but plenty more are still struggling as the after-effects of
lockdowns – Aucklanders have slogged through four – and the ongoing nature of the pandemic linger.

Controlling behaviours, anxiety rising

Obsessive compulsive disorders, eating disorders and depression, which is often coupled with anxiety, are all on the rise in young people, Totally Psyched child and adolescent mental health clinic director Sarah Watson says.

“We’re seeing young people exhibiting a lot more controlling behaviours than in the past. OCD, eating disorders, a lot seem to have increased in intensity.”

For young children anxiety sparked by the uncertainties of Covid-19 usually manifest in fears about something happening to those they love, although children under the age of 8 to 10 can also be blissfully ignorant of the magnitude of what’s going on.

Teen anxiety tends to be related to social interactions, so stay-at-home orders can initially seem wonderful, Watson says.

“But going back [into society] can feel really hard. If you’re out of practice, the resilience you’ve built up can be lowered.”

Parents and caregivers can help by listening, trying to understand and helping find solutions.

If solutions can’t be found, or if changes in behaviours and emotions last more than a few weeks, professional help – your GP is a good start – may be needed.

Unfortunately, the public health system is under pressure, with more mental health services needed, says Watson, whose Auckland practice is private.

And for mums and dads noticing the strain themselves, they should no feel alone – Watson says they’re aware of as many parents’ struggling as their kids.

But there’s light on the horizon.

“We’ve had a beautiful existence for so many generations in New Zealand. This the first real difficulty that’s brought us together as a nation.

“The positive is that as a country most of us feel pretty proud that, relatively speaking, [on Covid-19] we’ve done a good job.”

Going beyond the school gates

The work goes on.

At the Graeme Dingle Foundation, that work means adapting their programmes, traditionally run mostly through schools, to go out through the non-school community.

That means working with organisations are diverse as community boards and corporates.

It’s prompted by fears some young people who are no longer in the school system, especially since the lockdowns, are missing out, foundation chief executive Jenny Stiles says.

“What we’re finding is the disengagement from school is a big thing, particularly in the Far North, Rotorua, and Auckland, because of the lockdowns.”

Some school principals in deprived areas spoke last year of pupils not returning to re-opened schools because of fears of catching the virus, or because they needed to work to support their families.

Prasad, the new tertiary student whose independence last year was interrupted by Covid-19’s arrival in New Zealand, has heard the same from friends at her old school, James Cook High.

“A friend in year 12 told me after lockdown that eight classmates just came back to say they were leaving. They went to work at MIQ and New World, because their parents had lost their jobs.

“And these are people who would go far in life. It’s not the ones that are shirking, it’s the ones that are in class every day who have to leave.”

Some foundation programmes, such as the usually-run-in-high school Career Navigator, have been shifted in the past year to support community referrals for those aged up to
24, and are among six new pilot programmes part of the switch, Stiles says.

One pilot links Career Navigator, which gives young people real-world experience in fields where they have interest, with the viticulture and seafood industry in Marlborough, also helping ease labour shortages sparked by border closures.

Another community-based Career Navigator programme is planned in Porirua this year.

“We’re seeing a whole cohort of kids who are just lost … and we’re having amazing results.”

The pilot programmes also include some in the Project K space, a life skills and resilience-building programme traditionally offered to year 10 high schoolers.

Prasad is a former Project K kid, and Moore, the foundation research and evaluation manager, says she loves hearing how the now 20-year-old and others who wrote about their Covid-19 year for the foundation have grown from the experience.

They wrote of resolving not to put off their dreams and the importance of keeping friends and family close, “because people make the difference”.

“We [adults] were all saying we’re going to learn from [Covid], but we don’t. Young people, they really made a change.”

A new appreciation

Collins, working 12-hour shifts at a winery and finding his way back to his dream of being a teacher, has done it.

For Prasad, who works full-time – she stays overnight as a caregiver for intellectually disabled older adults – while also studying, the dream of being an occupational therapist never went away.

What has changed, though, is how she feels about living at home again, and supporting her family.

She sees the struggles of the past year as being akin to a near-death experience.

“I was so driven to gain my own experience and independence before. I’ve learnt a lot about appreciating the moment, learning what my values are, and my mental health and what works.

“Family, it means something. Even though Covid took my independence … it’s made me really appreciate what I have.”

She’s also learned how strong her community is. Now she wants to be strong for her community.

It’s at the centre of her two big goals for the future.

“I want to use my skills, to bring them back to my community. And I want to have a home of my own.”

Where to get help:

• Lifeline: 0800 543 354 (available 24/7)
• Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 (0508 TAUTOKO) (available 24/7)
• Youth services: (06) 3555 906
• Youthline: 0800 376 633
• Kidsline: 0800 543 754 (available 24/7)
• Whatsup: 0800 942 8787 (1pm to 11pm)
• Depression helpline: 0800 111 757 (available 24/7)
• Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155
• Helpline: 1737
If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.

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