By Rainesford Stauffer
Ya’el Courtney has only been homebound — or participating in social distancing, a means of attempting to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus — for a few days, and she already feels guilty for not being productive. The 24-year-old first-year Harvard Ph.D. student’s daily life, which used to consist of the gym at 6 a.m., classes, working in the lab, and evening meetings until 9 p.m., now exists solely in the confines of her home. She’s fielding advice from her neuroscience teachers and advisors — many of whom, she says, are implying that students now have more time to put into their work.
“I'm so anxious I can barely pay attention and accomplish anything, much less more than usual,” Courtney tells MTV News. “I also can't see my therapist as I usually would, so it feels like my avenues for dealing with these feelings are diminished.”
There’s good reason to feel like the world is shuttering as social distancing becomes the new normal: Campuses are closing or moving classes online, while employers transition their offices to remote work when possible, and bars, restaurants, and public gatherings are shutting down. Add to that the stress of potential physical illness, and it’s understandable that these drastic changes to social structures can pose mental health challenges, too.
While Courtney points out that young people have a responsibility to social distance in order to help mitigate the novel coronavirus’s spread, she wishes we were also talking more about the mental strain of losing your routine and traditional support systems. “It's not wrong to grieve what you've lost, it's not wrong to admit that this is a really challenging thing,” she says.
“I am anxious all the time,” Meg, a 25-year-old who works in advertising, tells MTV News. (She is not using her last name to protect her privacy.) While her job is always high-stress with long hours, the threat of COVID-19 has altered it radically. “Now, not only are you spending your free time scrolling through social media and becoming anxious about this virus, you're also spending your working time inside it while also trying to figure out how your client should react to it,” she says. While other reactionary projects might allow you to step back and regroup at the end of the day, she explains that “with this, you're entrenched in it all the time.” She had her first panic attack in months last week.
Diagnoses of anxiety and depression in young people are on the rise, and they’re disproportionately feeling the crunch, according to a 2019 study from the American Psychological Association. Yet while one in four Americans reported having to choose between paying for mental health treatment or daily necessities, that can be a particular struggle for young people or students, who often have lower incomes and are at the mercy of their guardians or campuses to provide the help they need.
That was the baseline before the coronavirus outbreak. Now, young people are fielding questions about job security, where education goes from here, and how the country will be altered permanently by the coronavirus — and gaps in mental health care are further exposing themselves as a significant barrier to well-being during a time of chaos and isolation.
Things are especially difficult for retail workers, many of whom feel they cannot afford to call out of work. Brie, a young worker at the minimum-wage level, says the emotional labor typically involved with her work has been exacerbated by the coronavirus outbreak. (She is not using her last name to protect her privacy.) She’s not only spending her shift stocking shelves while keeping her distance but also soothing customer worries and calming their panic, as well as managing her asthma and recovering from a bad case of bronchitis, “which I worked through in order to keep from using any of my unpaid sick hours, in case there would come a time when I physically couldn't.”
“I'm internally panicking myself and exhausted because of it,” she says. “We're somehow supposed to balance following all the rules required to keep coronavirus from spreading — when working retail essentially breaks all of those rules — and not complain about it either.” She’s been taking a lot of naps and doing a lot of journaling, as well as “taking moments to breathe a lot” in an effort to deal with the added stress.
“Above all, we really do need to be paying attention to those who don't get to work from home and who are living paycheck to paycheck,” Meg adds, highlighting in particular how people who work at grocery stores or in hospitals “are at the frontlines of this illness. If anything, I hope that folks recognize how important it is to be kind to everyone.”
And as many inequities have been laid bare during the virus’s escalation, prioritizing mental health in the time of coronavirus compounds an existing crisis. There are not enough counselors in high schools to begin with, and many colleges struggle to keep up with a need for mental health and psychiatric care. Now, students working remotely may not have access to their schools’ mental health resources at all. Some young people — and especially young people of color — don’t make enough to afford out-of-pocket costs for therapy, and others lack insurance coverage to offset the cost. These barriers put young adults in a precarious position during a global pandemic: With the necessary focus on social distancing and protecting each other’s physical health, how do they maintain their mental health, too?
According to Laura Horne, the Chief Program Officer of Active Minds, a leading organization on college students and mental health, unexpected life transitions and other stressors can have an added effect of triggering or worsening existing mental health concerns. She recommends making efforts to keep your routine as much as possible, as well as staying connected through social media and video calls, seeking news from reliable sources, and watching a movie or practicing yoga if those activities help ease your worries. And personal well-being shouldn’t be an afterthought, even in the midst of global chaos.
“We're all in this together and we can lean on each other and be vulnerable with each other in this time, because we are all impacted one way or another and can lean on each other,” Horne says.
And young people are already developing new ways to prioritize connecting with others beyond video chats and group messages with friends. Among them are Ananya Singh and Ryan Dratler, two 17-year-old high schoolers from New Jersey who are planning to launch a podcast for their peers that will shed light on strategies to stay happy and productive during unpredictable times.
For Ryan, the pandemic and the recommendation to socially distance that soon followed “made me feel powerless.” He noticed how much talking about his feelings helped, and adds that the podcast will allow him and Ananya to focus on connecting with others and building a social element into their routines.
“It has definitely been stressful to observe the global consequences of the pandemic, and to have so much uncertainty and fear being spread,” Ananya says, adding that during the first few days of social distancing from school and her job, she was upset and lonely. She’s since created a daily routine for herself with exercise, reading, FaceTiming, cleaning the house, and continuing her environmental activism online.
Meanwhile, Lily Schur and Henry James, 17-year-old high school students in Connecticut, started the “Kick Corona Challenge” on March 16, days after school closures dramatically altered their day-to-day lives. The project uses social media to lay out a “challenge,” like “tag us in your best homemade recipe,” to help spread positivity.
“The amount of sheer panic and uncertainty boiling through our country has put a lot of stress on the entirety of the American population, if not globally,” Lily tells MTV News. James agrees, adding that, “It has only been five days of ‘social distancing,’ and I can already feel the effects.” Both believe the online engagement can help individuals feel less stressed and less isolated.
Not everyone has found their routine yet: 16-year-old student Emanuelle Sippy, who lives in Kentucky, tells MTV News that her school district is still trying to figure out how to provide off-campus instruction to many students. “Students who don't have technology access, healthy meals, health care, and a safe home environment are facing challenges that I'm not,” she explains, adding that many of students in her district receive free or reduced-fare lunch. “And this pandemic will likely affect their trajectory more than those of us who can access support, even if our schools don't provide them.”
As for Jasmine, a 17-year-old high schooler in Alabama, “the scariest part is living in an increased state of uncertainty. It feels like the world is in a constant state of panic already, [and] each tragedy magnifies the malice of just living during this time period,” she tells MTV News. (She is not using her last name to protect her privacy.) Though she’d never heard the term “social distancing” before, she says she’s utilizing the “much-needed break” to catch up on sleep, complete scholarship applications and homework, and spending time making music and writing.
That so many young people are also leaning into their favorite streaming platforms and social media feeds probably isn’t as bad as parents think it is, either. “Technology, as much as it can be a problem, is probably one of our best friends right now,” Dr. Jessi Gold, a psychiatrist and assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis, tells MTV News. She encourages people to see their digital meetings and activities as an “actual activity” — and that planning video calls or virtual movie nights just like we would any other social activity can be helpful in the long run.
“I don't think people even realize how much they rely on seeing other people day to day,” Gold says, adding that even though we live in a very individualistic society, humans are still communal by nature.
Normally, in times of transition, stress, or struggle, vulnerable people could plan coping strategies with their therapists or mental health providers ahead of time, though COVID-19 didn’t give us that luxury. That’s why focusing on positive coping strategies is crucial: “It's kind of like backwards planning,” Gold says. “And how do we find ways to cope and do self care in a completely different environment than we've mostly been exposed to?”
It currently seems impossible to predict what life could look like following an international pandemic of this scale, but young people are already rising to the challenge, and incorporating the lessons they’re learning in real time for the next day forward. And they’re not alone, either: Gold also hopes there is focus on the fall-out, and that we are all ready to address the mental health aftermath. “We can't just pretend it didn't happen and not then support people afterwards,” she says.
You can help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Not everyone has the option to stay at home, but if you can, you should! Social distancing is the new normal, and we’re here to help.