ELS EFECTES DEL COVID-19

Growing older during pandemic times is even more difficult

Experts warn young people are giving up at an important developmental stage

Two young people on the terrace of a bar next to Collblanc Market in l'Hospitalet de Llobregat, last July / PERE VIRGILI CRISTINA CALDERER

"Young people are a deeply disenchanted collective right now". This is what Natàlia Cantó, a sociologist and lecturer at the UOC, says. She points out that "they have suffered a lot from the effects of the pandemic and now they see a great economic crisis coming, which makes many of those who are studying wonder whether this will be useful for the future, and those who are already working think that they will find themselves in very precarious conditions. All of this has a strong impact on their emotional well-being", she explains.

She believes it is important to differenciate between those who are in the stage of compulsory schooling (those who are still in the ESO, "who at least still have acess to a certain normality because they are going to school, which means meeting up again with friends and teachers") and those who are no longer in this stage because they are working or studying in higher education. "Those who are working are probably in precarious situations; and those who are still training are doing so isolated in front of a computer, at home, with teachers who were not at all prepared for online training and who have collapsed because their teaching model is face-to-face and, therefore, they do online classes that do not motivate their students and do not work. The outlook is quite bleak".

Youngsters and adolescents, cornered and outpaced by the pandemic

Dolors Líria, psychologist and member of the board of directors of the Col·legi Oficial de Psicòlegs de Catalunya (COPC), also expresses that the mental health of young people is suffering the consequences of this crisis. "Everything that is happening has a great emotional impact on them: it causes anxiety, worry, disappointment... And it is normal that this can translate into more nervousness, irritability, anger and even conflicts with family or friends", she explains. Líria believes that one of the keys to understanding young people's discomfort is "the accumulation of resignations". "This has a great emotional impact, since they have been renouncing to everything that is natural at their age for many months: going out, experimenting, getting to know people, socializing... All of this cannot be done now and it is a loss that they are living very intensely, and with the uncertainty that they do not know when it will end. This causes apathy and sadness in many young people.

A vital stage

Natàlia Cantó stresses that "youth is vital" to explain the importance of this very special stage. "They are expected to build a life project and this is done together with others. There connections that are made whilst still young that help them become the people that they will be later on. And now they cannot do these things, and we are not taking them into account. Right now everything that makes the transition to adult life possible is blocked, they cannot take the necessary steps to build their future and that is why we need to have more empathy with them", she states.

She also remembers that for many years "we have told them that to be young is very intense and very special stage, expansive, but when they got there we told them that now, it will not be like that". "This has very strong emotional consequences", she warns.

Young people in vulnerable situations

Cantó emphasizes young people's mental health when in more vulnerable situations. "What the pandemic has done is accentuate inequalities, make them bigger, and this has a great emotional impact on many young people". Núria Fuentes, lecturer and professor at the UB and coordinator of the research group on social interventions in children and young people, agrees with this analysis. "We were already one of the countries with the highest levels of child and youth poverty, and now with the pandemic this risk has increased. And this is also a big problem for the mental health of these young people, since it leads to very complicated situations and reduces their present and future opportunities", she says. "Going through adolescence in a context of precariousness, which is happening to many boys and girls in this country, increases their emotional vulnerability", she summarizes. She brings up the example of access to digital tools. "Non-presential education has created a problem of access to the contents, platforms and resources offered by schools and has left many young people excluded, not only from the theoretical part of learning but also from the support, often emotional, that they now do not receive".

Guilty of the second wave?

One of the big problems that young people have had in this second wave of covid-19 is that they have been blamed for the increase in cases for their alleged bad behaviour. "I don't think they were the only ones to be blamed for the second wave", says Fuentes. "There have been a lot of people who have broken the rules, but youngsters and teenagers have been singled out a lot, as a group, when in fact only a few of them have done things wrong".

The teacher points out that what we should do "as adults" is "put ourselves in their shoes, understand the needs they have and ask ourselves and them what they need. "I think it would be good to find safe ways for them to do some of the things they need. We should have counted on them more and given them a more active role."

Dolors Líria also says that the criminalization they have suffered "is not fair" and believes that it would be good "to recognize all the young people who follow the recommendations, have their own criteria, and take care of themselves; there are many".

All experts agree that perhaps something good can come out of the current situation, and that is why we ask them what young people will get out of this. Núria Fuentes points out that it is very likely that it will help them "to reconsider their values" and "to learn to live in a very uncertain world where they have to develop the capacity for adaptability and creativity, as well as to manage uncertainty. All these capacities will be very good for them".

Dolors Líria believes that all the resignation and adapting they have made will "stay with them for life". "They will be forever aware that they have been able to cope with great adversity and when they find themselves in other difficult times they will be able to look back and find useful tools to manage them".

Natàlia Cantó goes a bit further and points out that today's young people are the children who suffered the crisis of 2008 and therefore have lived through complicated situations from a very young age. "This means that they will surely be a generation that will take very few things for granted and it could happen that we will find ourselves with two extreme reactions. On the one hand, those who, when older, will try to live life following an extreme carpe diem mantra, because they know that they are not under control and they do not know what will happen tomorrow. On the other hand, we could also see them doing the opposite precisely because they know that they don't control what will happen, and that's why they have to be very careful". 

Cantó points out that this is a generation of young people who "have seen how things they counted on were broken, and this leaves scars".

Psychological consultations increase

Although there are no official figures on the increase in psychological care for young people, mental health professionals do explain that they have experienced an increase. Roger Ballescà, a psychologist at the Hospital Sagrado Corazón in Martorell and deputy secretary of the COPC governing board, says that there has been "an increase in demand for both public and private services", but stresses that it has been dampened for two important reasons: "In terms of public services, because the vast majority of young mental health cases come from outpatient clinics and right now they are and have been collapsed, so it is difficult for them to attend to all pathologies, especially mental health ones". In the case of private health practice, Ballescà points out that, although there has been an increase in demand, it is probably lower than we believe, since "this increase has been slowed down by the economic problems of many families, because in crisis situations many people cannot afford psychological treatment".

Starting university in covid times

One of the most special moments in the lives of young students is starting university. A new world not only of knowledge but of relationships and discoveries that in many cases accompany you for the rest of your life. "However, young people who have started the university this year have been left without the social part, which is very important for them", stresses Natàlia Cantó.

"University is also about making new friends, building relationships with teachers, going to the library, working in groups, spending time at the cafeteria, falling in love, going to university parties... And now they can't do this and the only way they can connect to their classmates is online, which makes them feel deeply isolated", she warns.

"It is clear that we have to fight the pandemic but we are making all the mental health consequences invisible in the way we are managing it. If the shops and subways are open, why can't the universities be open?" asks this expert, who believes that "in the eyes of young people there are many decisions that seem incomprehensible and that them the message that they are not being taken into account, as it occurred during the first lockdown".

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