The COVID-19 pandemic has led to poorer mental health among young adults
New research, published by the ESRI and produced in partnership with the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth (DCEDIY), shows that the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in poorer mental health among young adults. Using data from the Growing Up in Ireland COVID-19 survey, carried out in December 2020, the findings show that four-in-ten 22-year-old men and over half (55 per cent) of 22-year-old women were classified as depressed. These were much higher figures than two years previously when 22 per cent of men and 31 per cent of women were depressed.
Poorer mental health during the pandemic reflected the disruption to young adults’ employment, education and day-to-day activities. Just before the pandemic hit, most (63 per cent) of these 22-year-olds were in full-time education or training and so shifted to remote learning. The vast majority had the electronic devices they needed for remote learning and live online lectures/classes were offered by their institutions. However, around half did not have access to adequate broadband and a quiet place to study, and less than one third (30 per cent) received regular feedback on their work. Over half (57 per cent) found it difficult to study while learning remotely and this was linked to a greater risk of depression. In contrast, those who had more interaction with their institution and the resources they needed to study fared better.
Over half (57 per cent) of those working (either full-time or while studying) when the pandemic hit lost their job. Only one-in-six (16 per cent) of the young adults started working remotely or increased the hours they worked from home. Having higher Leaving Certificate grades and being in a professional/managerial job at age 20 appeared to act as some protection against job loss when the pandemic began. Receiving the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP) served to shelter these young adults from financial strain following employment loss. Losing a full-time job was linked to poorer mental health, especially for young men.
Young adults reported very significant changes to their social activities during the pandemic. Over 80 per cent had less face-to-face contact with their friends than before the pandemic, even though restrictions on such contact had begun to ease at the time of the survey. Reduced contact with friends was linked to increased depression for young women.
Of those who were engaged in sports and cultural activities prior to the pandemic, the majority reported spending less time on these activities during the pandemic. This was more common for those who lost their job or found it difficult to study remotely. Spending less time on sport and less time outdoors during the pandemic were linked to higher depression rates among men. Some less healthy behaviours, such as alcohol consumption, declined for a large group of young adults but other behaviours, such as eating junk foods/sweets, increased for many.
The factors protecting against depression were different for men and women. For men, being involved in team sports before the pandemic and confiding in a boy/girlfriend served as protective factors. For women, supportive peer relationships and positive family relationships helped to protect against depression.
The scale of mental health difficulties among young adults, particularly young women, is of significant concern. It is too early to say how long-lasting these effects will be but there appears to be a considerable risk of a longer-term scarring effect for some groups of young adults. While policy has rightly moved towards emphasising a continuum of support, the scale of difficulties among young adults will place considerable demands on community mental health services.
Emer Smyth, one of the report’s authors, said: ‘These findings show the stark impact of the pandemic on young adults’ mental health. They experienced massive disruption to their education, employment and day-to-day lives and their rates of depression increased as a result. The study shows the importance of providing adequate mental health supports for young adults as a matter of urgency.’
Anne Nolan, one of the report’s authors, said: ‘Overall, alcohol consumption levels during the pandemic declined among young adults but the small group who increased their consumption had poorer mental health. For women, eating more junk food/sweets was also associated with an increased risk of depression. The findings therefore highlight the potential for broader health promotion initiatives (in relation to diet, physical activity, smoking and drinking) to have positive spillovers on mental health and wellbeing’.
Launching the report, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Dr Roderic O’Gorman, T.D., said: “During the pandemic, young people missed out on a lot of the normal rites of passages, social interactions and transitions that would normally mark their early twenties and this report clearly shows the cost of this disruption to their mental health and wellbeing. The findings in the report will continue to inform policy and services across Government, aimed at improving the life of young adults. In my Department, the pandemic brought into sharp focus the important role that youth work plays in supporting young people and an additional €5 million was allocated in Budget 2021 and Budget 2022 to bring the annual youth funding, including capital allocations, to €73 million. This has enabled the youth sector to continue to provide supports to young people, particularly to marginalised, disadvantaged and vulnerable young people.”