Young people tell us how to care for them through COVID

Mission Australia’s deep dive into 953 written responses from young voices of the pandemic

Mission Australia has taken a deep dive into young people’s own words to produce a special report about what young people are feeling, worried about, and needing over the course of the pandemic.

These responses, which are outlined in the Young Voices of the Pandemic: Youth Survey COVID Report 2020, not only provide a sobering snapshot of the pandemic’s effect on young people last year, but also vital insights for a nation that is still battling to contain COVID’s spread now.

“These findings make clear the breadth and depth of the toll that COVID-19 has had on young people living in Australia. Major disruptions to education, increased isolation from peers, family and community, and mental health concerns understandably featured heavily within young people’s responses,” Mission Australia’s CEO, James Toomey said.

“The pandemic is still in play. With lockdowns and tighter restrictions recently triggered in response to COVID-19, we must take heed of what young people told us about their experiences and solutions in 2020.”

Toomey told Eternity that he hopes these findings will equip churches and youth ministries to meet the needs of young people – especially in the face of ongoing lockdowns across the country.

“We’ve gathered first-hand experiences described by young people during 2020 that will really help churches to better understand the experiences and needs of young people. Young people should have every opportunity to seek out sources of support and advice that work for their needs, and that includes supports and spiritual guidance provided through churches, including bible study groups or youth pastors connecting with young people,” he said.

Hardest hit groups, Victorians, 17-year-olds, and females

Mission Australia conducted its 19th annual Youth Survey of people aged 15-19 from April to August last year (2020).

For this report, the organisation looked at 18,486 responses received in response to an open-text question: “In the past year, what is the biggest issue that you have been dealing with? What do you think needs to be done about it?’”.

953 of these young respondees said that COVID-19 had impacted their education, isolation and mental health – with some groups featuring more than others.

After a series of harsh lockdowns, it is not surprising that Victorian young people are one of those groups.

More than one third (34.4 per cent) of respondents who reported COVID-19 and education was their top personal concern were living in Victoria. And, it was the state’s 17-year-olds who were most likely to say their education had been severely impacted by COVID.

“It has been pretty hard to stay motivated in schoolwork and life in general during the pandemic and quarantine. I would say that this is the biggest issue, as it has a ripple effect on other parts of my life,” one 17-year-old male respondent from Victoria wrote.

“I have never felt so simultaneously stressed and unmotivated” – 17-year-old female, Victoria.

“Dealing with mental health and depression during COVID. Our school is not doing enough in terms of accounting for the abnormal state of the world when it comes to setting assessments – I have never felt so simultaneously stressed and unmotivated. There has been an extreme lack of allowances for COVID and online learning so I am consistently stressed about school – on top of being stressed about the world,” wrote a 17-year-old female, also from the southern state.

Victorian young people also reported being and feeling especially isolated – making up almost half (43. per cent) of the national group who expressed that concern.

“The biggest issue I’ve been dealing with is my mental health. My family home life hasn’t been the best and it was getting harder to feel loved, supported and safe when going through the COVID ‘holiday’/quarantine. I was contemplating suicide and I thought no one wanted me around,” one 15-year-old female respondent revealed.

“The severe impact of the pandemic on young Victorians in particular is not unexpected, given these young people endured Australia’s longest lockdown in 2020 and extended school closures,” said Toomey.

But it wasn’t only in Victoria that 17-year-olds were worried about their studies. Of all the Australian young people surveyed who said COVID had affected their education, 41.1 per cent of them were aged 17 – revealing high school seniors have especially felt the pandemic’s weight.

“School and stress because of COVID, now possible uni course price increases so financial security as well. I just need more support and reassurance that I won’t be put at a loss because of COVID,” wrote a 17-year-old female from NSW.

Nationally, more than two-thirds of those reporting mental health concerns due to COVID-19 were young females (68.9 per cent of females compared with 23.9 per cent of males).

“Feeling isolated. With a single, working mother and not a lot of family and a small school it is easy to feel alone. Being stuck at home this year hasn’t helped. Corona has made it feel like I am helpless, and everything that is dying, I, as a young person, have no control over,” reads the response of one 16-year-old female from Queensland.

“I feel like my anxiety has been the worst it has ever been this year. Being a year twelve student as well as the effects of quarantine in losing time with my friends and being laid off in my job I’ve experienced significant levels of stress. I just feel anxious all the time,” explained another female who was 17 and from NSW.

“We are very concerned that the impact of this virus will continue to have flow-on effects on young people’s lives now, and their futures. To best support our young people and mitigate any negative consequences they may face due to the pandemic, we must begin by listening to them and ensure that the right supports and systems are in place,” said Toomey.

Solutions proposed by young people

But alongside their concerns, young people surveyed also suggested solutions that would meet their needs, offering key insights for caring for young people as the pandemic continues.

Added support was needed to help young people understand when and how to help themselves when feeling overwhelmed and stressed with study, when feeling isolated and when experiencing poor mental wellbeing, respondents said. They also asked for extra support for young people in schools who were completing their final years of school during COVID-19 restrictions, to ensure they can achieve their educational goals.

“In 2020 in particular, there were extensive interruptions to young people’s education, pushing many into the uncertain world of remote learning. We’re not out of the woods yet. These findings reinforce that many young people in Australia completing their final years of school during COVID-19 restrictions may need extra support to achieve their goals,” said Toomey.

“It’s encouraging to see governments are continuing to support the needs of young people, particularly at this challenging time. For example, just last week we saw the NSW State Government extend the Stay Healthy HSC Hub partnership with ReachOut.”

Young respondents said they needed specific mental health prevention and early intervention supports that were delivered in flexible formats and aimed at addressing wellbeing issues that may arise during isolation periods. In general, they said more mental health resources and support needed to be available for young people, including through outreach and school programs.

“Despite various levels of government investing in mental health, there are still large gaps in the mental health system that have been laid bare by COVID-19 – particularly for those who are vulnerable or marginalised,” Toomey explained.

“From the get-go, governments, services and organisations should prioritise engaging young people to design solutions that will best support them at this crucial time in their lives, backed with relevant and current evidence.”