The mental health of young people has been significantly impacted by the COVID‑19 crisis. Prevalence of symptoms of anxiety and depression has risen dramatically among young people and remains higher than pre‑crisis levels even with the partial re‑opening of the economy, and compared to other age groups. The worsening of mental health can be attributed to disruptions to access to mental health services, the wide‑ranging impacts of school closures, and a labour market crisis that is disproportionately affecting young people. With adequate support and timely intervention, young people experiencing mental distress may be able to bounce back as we recover from the COVID‑19 crisis. This will require a scaling up of existing mental health support in education systems, workplaces and health systems, and comprehensive policies to support young people to remain in education, or to find and keep a job.
The COVID‑19 crisis has turned into a mental health crisis for young people:
· Young people’s (15‑24 year‑olds) mental health has worsened significantly in 2020‑21. In most countries, mental health difficulties among this age group have doubled or more. With adequate support and timely intervention, young people may be able to bounce back as we recover from the COVID‑19 crisis, but there is a risk that the consequences of the COVID‑19 crisis continue to cast a shadow over the lives of young people and their mental health;
· The uncertainties and broad impacts of COVID‑19 have not affected all people to the same degree: young people were 30% to 80% more likely to report symptoms of depression or anxiety than adults in Belgium, France and the United States in March 2021. Higher levels of loneliness are also being reported by young people;
· Mental health support for young people – notably in schools, universities and workplaces – has been heavily disrupted. Young people are turning to platforms such as mental health hotlines and youth centers for support, often enabled by online tools, while mental health services are offering teleconsultations and remote forms of care to maintain continuity of services;
· Closures of educational institutions at all levels have contributed to weakening of protective factors, including daily routine and social interactions that help maintain good mental health. Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are particularly affected by school closures;
· The impact of COVID‑19 on labour markets is disproportionately affecting young people, reducing opportunities for part-time work and work-based learning for students, and leaving soon-to-be graduates and recent graduates facing an uphill task to find and keep a job, putting them at elevated risk of experiencing mental health issues throughout the life course.
An integrated policy response is needed, as called for by the OECD Recommendation on Integrated Mental Health, Skills, and Work Policy, to protect young people’s mental health, both now and on a long-term basis:
· Additional mental health support – through information dissemination, phone or online services, and easier access to in-person services – should be a priority for young people, and where mental health support services in schools and universities cannot be resumed, alternatives must be found with urgency;
· Support for young people at risk of early school leaving, including young people with experience of mental health issues, should be prioritised to avoid disruptions in learning having a long-term impact on young people’s labour market outcomes and overall well-being;
· Unemployment is a major risk factor for poor mental health: supporting young people in finding, keeping and staying in work must be an economic, social, and public health policy priority. Training line managers in the workplace in mental health can also promote better mental health among young adults already in work.
This brief primarily uses prevalence symptoms of anxiety and depression – the two most common forms of mental health issues – estimated through surveys as a barometer of mental health. Where possible, surveys using validated instruments – such as General Anxiety Disorder (GAD‑7) for anxiety and Patient Health Questionnaire‑9 (PHQ‑9) for depression – are used. Instruments used to estimate population mental health, including age groups, differ across surveys, and samples are not necessarily representative, limiting the possibility for cross-country comparisons. As symptoms are self-reported, increase in prevalence may partially reflect changes in awareness or levels of (self-)stigma against mental health issues.
More about this research you can find on Supporting young people’s mental health through the COVID-19 crisis (oecd.org)