RATIONALITY OF THE PROJECT: THE IMPACT OF THE COVID-19 PANDEMIC ON THE MENTAL HEALTH OF YOUNG PEOPLE AND THE NEED FOR LESSONS LEARNT FOR IMPROVED PREPARAEDNESS AND RESILIENCE
The COVID-19 pandemic, caused by the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, was a global health crisis that emerged in late 2019. The virus was first identified in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, and quickly spread across the world, leading to widespread illness, death, and significant social and economic disruptions.
The World Health Organization (WHO) declared the outbreak a pandemic on March 11, 2020, highlighting the virus’s extensive geographic reach. Governments and health authorities worldwide implemented various public health measures to control the spread of the virus, which included lockdowns, quarantine, social distancing, face masks, or travel restrictions, among others.
The COVID-19 pandemic had a profound impact on the mental health of young people. The prolonged duration of the pandemic, along with the associated lockdowns, social distancing measures, and uncertainties, introduced new stressors and exacerbated existing ones:
Young people in Europe experienced higher rates of anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders during and after the pandemic. The disruption of daily routines, limited social interactions, and concerns about health and the future contributed to heightened emotional distress.
Social isolation has been a significant challenge for young people during lockdowns and restrictions. Limited face-to-face interactions with friends, family, and peers led to feelings of loneliness and disconnection, impacting mental well-being.
The shift to remote learning and disruptions in education caused academic stress and challenges for many young people. Adjusting to online learning environments, coping with exam uncertainties, and adapting to changes in educational plans added to their stress levels.
The pandemic resulted in economic hardships for some families in Europe, leading to financial stress and anxiety among young individuals. Concerns about job prospects and future economic stability also impacted mental health.
Many young people experienced the loss of loved ones due to COVID-19, leading to grief and bereavement. The inability to say goodbye or attend funerals has added to the emotional burden.
Young people relied heavily on digital devices and technology for remote learning, socializing, and entertainment during the pandemic. Excessive screen time and digital exhaustion have been linked to mental health challenges.
The pandemic created uncertainty about the future, such as employment prospects, travel opportunities, and overall life plans. This uncertainty led to anxiety and feelings of hopelessness among young people.
Access to mental health services were disrupted during the pandemic, particularly for vulnerable populations and those in underserved areas. Disparity in access prevented some young individuals from seeking or receiving necessary support.
As vaccination efforts and public health measures evolved, young people faced new challenges in transitioning back to in-person activities and coping with the changes. The post-pandemic phase presented, indeed, its own mental health implications.
Studies showed that this crisis had a bigger impact on the mental health of young people compared to older people due to various factors specific to their life stage and circumstances. While both groups faced challenges during the pandemic, adolescents and young adults, heavily rely on social interactions and peer relationships for emotional support and development. The pandemic’s social distancing measures limited their ability to socialize, leading to increased feelings of isolation and loneliness.
Young people experience critical developmental milestones during adolescence and early adulthood, such as forming identity, autonomy, and independence. The pandemic’s restrictions hindered their ability to explore and achieve these milestones, leading to frustration and feelings of being stuck.
Many young people were starting their careers or pursuing part-time jobs to support themselves. The pandemic’s economic impact led to job losses and limited opportunities, creating financial stress and anxiety about their future financial security. Young individuals had less experience dealing with major crises, making it challenging to navigate the uncertainties and fears associated with the pandemic. At the same time, the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the weaknesses of the mental health support infrastructure for young people.
As Europe continues moving towards recovery, it is essential to understand the challenges young people faced accessing quality care, take action to address the shortcomings exposed by the pandemic and build a more resilient and prepared world for future emergencies. This is important for several reasons:
Understanding the mental health implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on the mental health of young people provide valuable insights for policymakers, healthcare professionals, and organizations when developing strategies to address mental health during future crises. It allows them to make more informed decisions and implement evidence-based interventions to support mental well-being effectively.
Lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic can help in recognizing early signs of mental health distress during future crises. This early identification can enable timely intervention, reducing the risk of mental health issues escalating and becoming more severe.
Different crises may impact mental health differently. By understanding the specific challenges faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, it becomes possible to design tailored support systems and resources for the unique needs of young individuals facing mental health difficulties in future crises.
Analysing the pandemic’s mental health impact on young people can shed light on factors that promote resilience and coping mechanisms. This knowledge can guide the development of resilience-building measures, equipping communities and individuals with better tools to face adversity in future crises.
The pandemic exposed gaps in mental health services and resources targeting young people. Lessons learned can help authorities strengthen the healthcare infrastructure, including mental health services, so that it can better withstand and respond to future crises.
The pandemic has increased awareness around mental health, but stigma still exists. Lessons learned can be used to promote understanding and empathy, reducing the stigma associated with seeking help during difficult times.
By understanding the long-term mental health consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, appropriate measures can be taken to mitigate such consequences during future crises, reducing the overall impact on society.
Incorporating mental health considerations into crisis preparedness and response planning can help ensure a more comprehensive and holistic approach to managing future crises. It acknowledges that mental health is an integral part of overall public health and well-being.
Knowledge of the mental health impact of the COVID-19 pandemic can be used to advocate for increased resources and funding for mental health services during future crises. It highlights the importance of investing in mental health support as an essential component of emergency response efforts.
THE RE-ACT PROJECT: ACTIVITIES AND OUTCOMES
Having lessons learnt about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on mental health is essential for better preparedness, response, and recovery during future crises. It helps societies be more proactive in safeguarding mental well-being and building resilience among individuals and communities in times of adversity.
It is in this context that the ‘Reflexions on Local Resilience and Reactions to COVID-19 impact on Youth (RE-ACT)’ project was born thanks to the funding of the European Commission through the CERV-2021-CITIZENS-TOWN call.
RE-ACT has a background on the COVID-19 pandemic and how the European local authorities and society at large supported young people during these challenging times in 8 European municipalities participating in the project: Athienou (Cyprus), Amsterdam (The Netherlands), Kekava (Lithuania), Sibenik (Croatia), Turin (Italy), Murcia (Spain), Kreis Offenbach (Germany) and Suceava (Rumania). Seven Work Packages (WP’s) are both the backbone and building blocks of the RE-ACT project and, together, they represent a common organizational structure used by partners to manage and execute the various tasks and activities required to achieve project objectives.
‘Debate on the key impacts of the pandemic at local level. Data analysis and conclusions’, each RE-ACT partner conducted research to understand the mental health challenges faced in their respective communities.
Surveys, focus groups, and consultations with stakeholders, including young people themselves and health professionals, provided valuable insights into the specific needs and barriers encountered such as limited access to mental health services (financial constraints or lack of quality services), lack of digital infrastructure (digital divide), limited awareness and stigma, language and cultural barriers (disparities in the access of quality services), etc.
Whilst young people faced challenges accessing quality mental care, RE-ACT also demonstrated that local governments also played a crucial role in supporting young people’s mental health during the crisis.
‘Workshop on innovative methods to fight the problems detected. Key best practices at EU level transferring’, partners had the opportunity to present their best practices during the worst time of the COVID-19 pandemic that contributed to creating a supportive environment that promoted mental well-being and positive coping strategies.
Seminar to ‘improve capacities of civil servants and youngsters to reinforce participation’, RE-ACT partners worked together to illustrate in detail their local approaches. These positive coping mechanisms not only helped young individuals navigate the pandemic but also laid the groundwork for building long-term resilience and well-being.
An overview of the interventions during the workshop showed that, while overlapping themes could be identified across different fields of action, youth mental health support and services aimed at strengthening psychological and emotional resilience varied turned around the following policy exes:
- Psychological counselling.
- Sports and active lifestyles
- Youth engagement in voluntarism.
- Engagement in recreational and cultural activities
- Youth access to employment
- Youth participation in research projects.
RE-ACT partners held a ‘Peer to peer event of municipal officials/youth population on solutions to better shape cities responses’ to provide a platform for dialogue, collaboration, and the exchange of ideas between different stakeholders. Some of the outcomes of this event were:
- Facilitate Dialogue: Encourage open and constructive discussions between municipal officials and young people on mental health challenges faced by the youth population.
- Generate Solutions: Brainstorm innovative solutions and initiatives that can enhance mental health support and services for young people in the city.
- Promote Collaboration: Foster partnerships and collaboration between municipal authorities, youth organizations, mental health professionals, and other relevant stakeholders.
- Raise Awareness: Increase awareness about the importance of mental health and reduce stigma associated with seeking help.
In this sense, WP 4 served as a platform to create an extended knowledge network among participating partners to develop policy guidelines and recommendations for municipalities reproduced in this publication to improve the care of adolescents based on the knowledge acquired during the project.
‘RE-ACT co-creation workshop’ during which partners presented their respective roadmaps for policy implementation at the local level as strategic plans that outline the steps, activities, and timelines required to effectively put a policy into action within a specific geographic areas, clearly articulating the goal setting and planning, resource allocation, community engagement and awareness, capacity building, implementation phases, monitoring and evaluation system and potential for sustainability.
The policy guidelines stemmed from the RE-ACT project are the result of the collaborative effort and commitment of the project partners to the well-being of our youth and the consecution of a stronger foundation that supports the mental health of young people and paves the way for healthier and more resilient societies. These guidelines were officially presented during Work Package 6 in Murcia at a conference entitled ‘Debate with EU institutions: The Future of Europe participation’.
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