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When Lucas emerged from hospital the world had changed. It was late March and the 19-year-old was ordered to shield after six weeks of treatment for sepsis.
Like most teenagers, Lucas relied on social interaction, but his autism also required routine. Monday meant dog agility classes; Tuesday was brass band night; Wednesday, the St John Ambulance get together. On Thursday and Friday, there was training for Lancashire’s inclusive rugby team, the Typhoons. Suddenly, there was nothing. His mental health collapsed.
“The world became very overwhelming. I just wasn’t coping. In between March and May, I had a couple of very bad mental health crises and ended up in an inpatient unit. It wasn’t safe for me to be on my own at home. To say I struggled through Covid is an understatement,” said Lucas.
It is a fraught narrative repeated by young people across the country against the backdrop of an unfolding pandemic. Isolation, anxiety and uncertainty over the future have destabilised an entire generation.
The charity YoungMinds, whose remit is to prevent young people’s mental health reaching crisis point and to which Lucas turned for help, has recorded phenomenal demand for its services. During 2020, more than 2.5 million young people, parents, carers and professionals have turned to YoungMind either online or through its specialised helplines.The impact of the pandemic on young people has been significant, and there is evidence that it could be long term Emma Thomas, YoungMinds
The number of calls and emails to its confidential parents’ helpline, for those concerned about a young person experiencing anxiety, anger and suicidal thoughts, increased by 43% over the last 12 months. Use of the charity’s Find Help page rose by 48%. Demand for information on grief and loss soared by more than 150% compared with 2019.
Emma Thomas, the chief executive of YoungMinds, said: “The impact of the pandemic on young people has been significant, and there is evidence that it could be long term.”
More immediately, Covid has obliterated support systems and coping mechanisms. Those who have experienced childhood and adolescent trauma are particularly vulnerable.
Lucas began struggling with his mental health when he was 12, having looked after his mum and spent time in foster care. Many of those who contact YoungMinds report difficulties emerging at a similar age.
Cassianne was 11 when she started self-harming after suffering anxiety and depression. “My self-esteem was low and I kept myself to myself which left me a lot of time to be in my mind.” She began using social media to try to make sense of her feelings.
“There were a lot of accounts with people in depressed states, talking about their life. I became more and more sucked in, I became so lost in it all,” said Cassianne, now 19.
Although she eventually sought help from her GP, the pandemic has induced fresh anxieties. In September, she started studying law at the University of Hertfordshire. Instead of finding new friends and a stimulating experience, Cassianne found herself isolated through her fear of catching Covid-19 in an environment where few seemed concerned.
“A lot of people didn’t care about the virus, they were going out to parties and coming back to my building. I developed a lot of anxiety. I was panicky, cleaning everything. I didn’t want to leave my room, go into the shared kitchen.”
Abbey’s experience studying criminology at University of Salford was similarly discomfiting. After her course moved entirely online she lost all motivation.
“I found it almost impossible to concentrate, which led me to falling behind. Along with that, I was away from home, unable to go anywhere or do anything due to restrictions, which made me feel extremely lonely. The government has completely neglected university students during the pandemic, particularly in regards to mental health,” said the 21-year-old.
Abbey, 21, also battled mental health issues early, struggling with anxiety and insomnia when she was 10. By the age of 13, she was self-harming.
Bullying at school was the catalyst. “Before, I never used to care about how I looked and my weight, but constantly being called names and made to feel less worthy took a toll on me and how I viewed myself.”
She sought support when she was 15 and in 2017 was diagnosed with PTSD.
Abbey, Cassianne and Lucas are eager to share what they have learned. As “activists” for YoungMinds their collective message is that anyone can overcome their demons – if they get the right help.
Already Cassianne and Abbey have offered evidence to parliamentary inquiries into body image and social media and contributed to campaigns promoting wellbeing in schools.‘No child should be hungry or excluded’: how readers responded to our appeal Read more
Abbey is particularly keen to broaden discussion about LGBTQ+ and mental health, and is convinced that, had she seen someone who specialised in the area, she would have improved more rapidly.
She has also helped the charity develop resources for young people managing PTSD, believing that it remains a taboo subject still associated with “war and combat” instead of a traumatic event.
Cassianne, from north London, is developing her own mental health workshops and writing about her experiences of racism, recognising that youngsters from black and minority ethnic backgrounds suffer disproportionately from mental health issues. Lucas, meanwhile, wants to restart training as a children’s nurse.
It is not just help they all want to share, but hope too.
If you are a young person struggling with your mental health, advice and support is available on the YoungMinds website , including information about how to get help . For urgent support, contact the YoungMinds Crisis Messenger by texting YM to 85258. YoungMinds’ free helpline for parents is on 0808 802 5544 from 9.30am to 4pm, Monday to Friday