We have been awarded a grant from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) to investigate the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on adolescent mental health and wellbeing. Across a 12-month period, we will survey SCAMP participants, who are currently aged 16-18 years old, in order to assess fluctuations in mental health, cognition and behaviour, in response to the pandemic and changing public health measures.
We are extremely passionate about including young people in the co-design of our research, because we know that young people are experts in their own behaviour and experiences. Therefore, we set up a Young Persons Advisory Group (YPAG) with 16-19 year olds, to ask for their input in designing our research practices. We recently conducted a YPAG meeting and asked them about young people’s experiences of lockdown and also how it has been for them going back to school.
The group identified many negative experiences associated with lockdown. They discussed feeling lonely and isolated being stuck at home, unable to go to school, or see their friends. Many mentioned a feeling of built up energy, as they were no longer able to do normal day-to-day activities, such as walking to school. Many felt discouraged by a loss of routine and struggled with the pressures of schoolwork, particularly due to the loss of teacher-contact time. It was also difficult for many to access their schoolwork, especially those with little space at home.
They thought that mental health problems, like anxiety and depression, increased during lockdown. It was especially hard for those with existing mental health conditions, because it was more difficult to access support, and for those living in unstable home environments. Some also mentioned spending increasing amounts of time on social media, which was not good for their self-image.
However, some positive effects of lockdown were identified. Some mentioned that they were able to gain a better perspective about the important things in life. Others enjoyed the opportunity to spend more quality time with their parents and siblings. Some enjoyed being able to sleep in longer and spend more time on different projects that were not schoolwork.
Going back to school has been challenging for many young people. There was a general feeling of being overwhelmed at the start of the school year. Many felt bombarded with deadlines, such as university applications and early mock examinations. Some have felt tired or even exhausted at school, as they aren’t used to getting up so early. They feel extra pressure now, because they have missed five months of normal schooling, but are still expected to sit the same exams.
On top of this, the new COVID restrictions, such as social distancing and wearing face masks, have been difficult to get used to. Some people have felt anxious about mixing with large groups again, for fear of catching coronavirus. Others have found it difficult to interact with peers and make new friends, especially those who have started at new schools. It has been especially hard for students who are forced to stay at home and socially isolate, when a positive case has been identified in their year group. In these situations, students have felt a sense of missing out and concern for their education, particularly when they have been unable to sit mock exams.
Although there have been many challenges with going back to school, it seems that many young people have found it to be a positive experience. They have enjoyed being back with their friends, able to socialise and engage in some of the extracurricular activities they are used to. Many have enjoyed having a routine again and expressed feeling a sense of purpose and pride in their achievements at school. Some have enjoyed better sleeping habits and feeling more productive. Others said that their brains feel more engaged.
In summary, both lockdown and going back to school have been challenging for young people. Although, many of the young people we spoke to were able to find positive aspects in these difficult circumstances. However, it is important to remember that these times have been particularly difficult for those with existing mental health conditions and those living in more difficult home environments.
These insights will inform the future surveys and analyses we conduct for evaluating the effects of COVID-19 on young people.