Mental health is a protection issue: Why Youth, Peace & Security is a priority in pandemic response
July 20, 2021, by Stacie Smith
Over the past 18 months, COVID-19 has proven to be a major cause of an increase in mental health-related challenges in Canada. This has been considerably difficult for young people, as this is typically an exciting time of transitioning into adulthood and experiencing new things. Young people have faced challenges such as being isolated away from their friends and have had to adapt to remote learning. Challenges associated with online learning, isolation, and few economic prospects caused by the pandemic have had negative impacts on the mental health of Canadian youth. As we build back together from the pandemic, the implementation of the Youth, Peace and Security (YPS) pillar on prevention can be utilized to consider mental health challenges faced by young people.
Prevention is one of the five key pillars of the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2250 (UNSCR 2250) on YPS, and mental health plays an important role in the protection of vulnerable youth. Resolution 2250 demands that all necessary measures be taken to protect persons, especially youth, from any further isolation and economic insecurity. A decline in collective mental health poses significant risks if young people are not properly protected.
Recent research from The Hospital for Sick Children outlines data with a large majority of youth experiencing harm to their mental health during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Greater stress due to social isolation, including both the cancellation of important events and the loss of in-person social interactions, was strongly associated with a decline in mental health. This is an example of how the prevention pillar needs to include mental health supports as a consideration. There are many risks that can impact the overall development of youth during the pandemic; this includes the risk of learning delays and health problems in adulthood; cognitive impairment; substance abuse; depression; and contracting diseases or illnesses. These are things I have experienced due to a decrease in my own mental health. Young people are also unable to interact with their peers, which can amplify the effects of isolation, leading to an increased risk of mental health issues.
Most post-secondary students have had to adapt to online learning. The inability to access campus activities and student resources has been a barrier for many. However, several students also face challenges at home, such as crowded households with poor internet connections, making it difficult for them to succeed. Early year post-secondary students experience barriers in adapting to online learning, an unexpected challenge they were perhaps not prepared for.
Marginalized youth in particular are at a higher risk of exposure to the impacts to online learning caused by COVID-19. Evidence shows that school closures can have adverse effects on students from low-income households as they may lack stable internet access or the necessary devices to attend virtual classes. This may result in further stigma and discrimination against certain groups, which could exclude them from accessing essential health and community services.
The pandemic has also had an economic impact on youth by affecting their employment and career prospects. One in six young people who were employed before the outbreak of the pandemic stopped working altogether, specifically those between the ages of 18 to 24. Sectors such as services, sales, crafts, and related trades were the hardest hit. Young people in lower-income communities were the most exposed to reductions in working hours and the decrease in income from it. This also holds true for young people trying to find employment, as many employers have needed to cut costs due to COVID-19 disruptions and the closure of many workplaces. Thus, finding and maintaining employment has been a considerable barrier for many young people throughout the pandemic.
The COVID-19 outbreak has affected all of us in one way or another. The effects will be felt for many years to come, and although we are slowly making our way out of this, we will need to adapt to our new “normal” over the next several years. Youth mental health advocacy and considerations need to be at the forefront of post-pandemic recovery. The prevention pillar of YPS can be a tool for analysis and support inclusive approaches to support young people as they take on the world.
About the author:
Stacie Smith graduated from Dalhousie University in 2020 with a Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology. She is the Executive Director of the Young Canadians Roundtable on Health, the founder of the COVID-19 Student Support Network, and a Youth Partner with Frayme.