Mental Health and Wellbeing for Young People in a Pandemic: Advice from a mother and a youth worker

As we make our way through lockdown 3 there is good reason to be feeling all manner of emotions. The upheaval we have all felt has come with a myriad of challenges including keeping up with the fast pace of change.


As a long term youth worker, I have often been involved with young people who have really struggled with their sense of wellbeing and, in some cases, with significant mental illnesses that have emerged during their adolescence. In our teenage years, our mental health and wellbeing can be fragile, and levels of happiness among our teens here in the UK have been low for a number of years now.


This then is one thing that causes me grave concern, as both a mother and a youth worker: the mental health of our young people during this most restrictive of times.


A time when physical touch is restricted, when occupying the same physical space as others outside of your bubble is restricted, when hugging grandparents and other close family members might not be permitted. It’s truly mind-blowing to think that just about a year ago, your average young person probably had some kind of physical or emotional interaction with hundreds of people in a school day.


Barbara Frederickson talks about micro-moments in her book Love 2.0, her overarching theory being that although we usually think about love as something that is either romantic or consists of strong connections between family members or friends who are like family, in actual fact love can be experienced in all sorts of places, with all sorts of people. A micro-moment then, is a moment of connection with another human being, two or more people who co-experience emotions in a moment are experiencing what it means to be connected into something bigger than themselves. This applies particularly with positive emotions, but also negative ones.


In the middle of the first lockdown, I had a conversation with my eldest boy about this, he was really struggling with the feeling of isolation and wailed at me ‘I just want to see my friends, even if it’s Billy!’ (name has been changed for the purpose of this blog).


Billy, for context, is a boy who used to call my boy names, who would stick his foot out in the corridor while my boy was passing, who routinely broke or stole new pens or pencils that my boy took into school. That my boy was so desperate to see someone, he would be happy if that was the boy who was bullying him is baffling, until you see through the lens of ‘micro-moments’.


School hallways full of micro-moments of interaction. Photo credit Jimmy Chan on Pexels

These connections with Billy were not loving, positive connections but they were, in a strange way, important. They were part of the shared experience of school life; in his school there are 1200 pupils plus a whole team of teaching and support staff.


In what now feels like a pre-covid, crazy system, the bell would ring and all 1200 pupils would leave their classroom and go to another one, sometimes on the same corridor but more often than not, a room on the other side of the school. And then, in another mad move, they would have two 30 minute breaks in which all 1200 pupils would pour out of classrooms into the dining hall or into the outside spaces!


Now, this school is blessed with a large playground, plus basketball courts and a large field, it is more than enough space for all 1200 of them. However, all this moving around means micro-connections with a significant chunk of the school community and this would happen 8 times a day. This is not too dissimilar to the weak-ties mentioned in this piece about working from home during the pandemic.


One of the biggest consequences of the first lockdown was the complete cessation of these micro-moments for all our young people. There was a lot that was unprecedented about that first lockdown, but for my eldest boy, an extrovert who needs people, this was the biggest challenge.

So how can we support our young people through these difficult times?


Well, there’s no silver bullet or one-size-fits-all approach, but there are some things we can do to try make things feel a little less isolating:


Have a conversation. One of the things I’ve enjoyed is the opportunity for our whole family sit at the dinner table more regularly. This gives everyone a chance to talk and to listen to each other. If you don’t think your family would talk easily then use a conversation starter game like ‘Would you rather,’ or even a quiz. You can buy table ‘games’ online easily and at low cost. The aim is not necessarily to have a deep conversation, just to begin to chat.


Gathering as family around the meal table to talk. Photo by Dan Gold from Unsplash

Play a game together/do a jigsaw puzzle together. This encourages companionship without eye contact, which can be very comforting and lead to surprising conversations. Some of the deepest conversations I’ve had with teenagers have been over a jigsaw puzzle. Maybe steer away from Monopoly though!


Go outdoors as often as possible, it’s truly amazing what spending a bit of time outdoors can to do help soothe the soul. If either of you is adventurous and you live in a suitable location, you might suggest cold water or wild swimming! There’s a growing body of science which shows that it is tremendously beneficial for those suffering with depression or anxiety. But if that’s not your thing then even just a stomp about the block is good.


Wild Swimming is good for your health Photo Credit: Nat Isherwood

Signpost them to your local Children and Adolescent Mental Health Service online provision, spend a bit of time searching on local Facebook groups or on Google for your local CAMHS, in my area they are called i-Rock and are on Instagram posting regular Live sessions. The Young Minds website is excellent, with good information for parents as well as young people.


Turn off the news, including not watching the 24/7 news channels, limit time on social media if possible and on news websites. In his book Humankind, Rutger Bregman likens the news to a drug which leads to heightened anxiety, lower mood levels, learned helplessness, contempt and hostility towards others. Limiting you and your family’s exposure to it will help to ease anxiety and stress.


Look after yourself. The people around someone experiencing mental illness can find it difficult to look after themselves; it’s an anxious time when your loved ones are ill, especially when there isn’t a lot you can do to ‘make it better’. Ensuring that you are aware of how to improve your mood and taking positive steps to do this not only means you’ll be in a better frame of mind but it also models good practice to your child, they might even join you, though perhaps not if it’s having a bubble bath!


Finally, if you have any serious concerns about your child’s mental health do look at the Young Minds website for advice, you might also consult your GP or find a local support group. These are difficult times we live in and we all need a bit of support to get through.


Ultimately, it’s important to remember that the one thing that is constant in life is change. Things will change again and life will begin to return to something that we recognise.


Hugs will return, as will micro-moments of connection and relationship.


For now, we need to simply do the best we can to support our young people and children, until they are back in their regular routines, back to school, back to bustling hallways and teeming playgrounds.


It will come, soon.

 

Helplines for when things are very difficult:


Childline for under 19s: 0800 111


Samaritans for anyone to call at any time about anything 116 123


Papyrus for those at risk of suicide and those concerned about them 0800 068 4141


Young Minds parents helpline 0808 802 5544 Plus a crisis messenger service for young people on 85258


Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM) 0900 585858

 

Header image source Nick Fewings on Unsplash