Authors: Catherine Whicher and Suzanne Wait, The Health Policy Partnership

Depression has been identified as the fourth leading cause of illness and disability among 15- to 19-year-olds and suicide remains a major cause of death among young people worldwide. The COVID-19 pandemic has created a perfect storm of devastating circumstances driving symptoms of depression and anxiety, with some estimating as many as half of young people around the world may be at risk of being affected. The youth mental health crisis of the past decade risks turning into a youth mental health catastrophe.

Unique pandemic challenges

Rising unemployment from mass layoffs caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has hit young people hard. More than 15% of people aged 18–34 have lost work and many have had their hours reduced. Education has also been disrupted, though there have been some commendable efforts to keep students learning. Yet even for those fortunate enough to have an adequate set-up at home to enable online learning, studying in private without the benefit of natural social interaction offered by a school environment can be a difficult adjustment. School closures have been especially hard on vulnerable children, including those with pre-existing mental health issues.

While 2020 has been a challenging year for everyone, some decisions impacting young people have been controversial. Students living in dorms at one British university were literally fenced in overnight. In Spain, during the first lockdown, in spring, children went 44 days without being allowed outdoors. These harsh measures are evidence of policymakers’ insufficient consideration of the consequences of quarantines for children and young people. The impact of this social and physical isolation in terms of serious mental health challenges may linger among the young generation long after the pandemic recedes.

We have an obligation to our younger generations to protect their mental health

Lifelong struggles with depression often have their origins in adolescence and childhood. It seems clear, therefore, that any effort to reduce the prevalence and incidence of this terrible condition must include a focus on young people and the factors that may negatively affect their mental wellbeing.

To reverse the rise of depression among young people, we will need to address adverse childhood events and take a preventive approach, in which education, awareness and encouraging young people to seek help as soon as symptoms become apparent are paramount. In the immediate term, this means that COVID-19 recovery policies must ensure that the wellbeing of young people, children and future generations is being considered and adequately protected. As governments strive to ensure the sustainability of future healthcare systems, it is paramount that mental health services finally go to the top of the agenda, where they belong – and that the ongoing trend of chronic underfunding of mental health services for young people, but also for other generations, be reversed once and for all.

Undoubtedly, young people have borne a disproportionate burden of the pandemic. Many have sacrificed their personal freedoms, employment prospects and education to protect older people and those most at risk from COVID-19. They had to forego life experiences that they will never get back. As a society, we must not underestimate the price many have had to pay, and we must in turn ensure that their own mental health is supported. Addressing the challenge of depression in young people is not only a question of compassion and duty of care, but also a matter of urgency if we want to avert an epidemic of mental illness in the future.

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This blog is the second in a series as part of the Words to Actions initiative. Words to Actions began in 2018 with the publication of a report from nine leading mental health patient organisations across Europe. This blog post was produced by The Health Policy Partnership. The original report and all subsequent Words to Actions materials were initiated and funded by Janssen. For full details, please see:

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