Young people in Ireland are experiencing high levels of stress and uncertainty during the COVID-19 pandemic. They have been thrown into a new reality beyond any of their expectations, and many now find themselves struggling to keep up. During this time, we need to offer young people emotional support and understanding to help them get through this crisis and look forward to the future.
Since the beginning of this global emergency, SpunOut.ie has been engaging with young people across Ireland to get an understanding of their experiences during the pandemic. They, like many others, are experiencing high levels of anxiety under these new circumstances. These feelings are compounded by the fact that they are also expected to continue on with their school or college work as though things were normal – something which is very difficult for a young person to do without the structure, resources, and dedicated learning spaces they are used to.
Living situations can have a big impact on a student’s ability to engage in focused learning. Those in smaller living spaces or with big families are less likely to have somewhere to do their work, while for others, their home is not a safe place to be. Some young people act as carers for other family members and will find themselves having to carry out tasks like cooking, cleaning, or doing the shopping. Expecting them to carry out their usual level of schoolwork in these circumstances is unfair.
The digital divide is another challenge for many young people. Students in rural areas have said that their access to WiFi and data is limited, and poor connections make it harder to engage with online learning. Young people from disadvantaged backgrounds may not even have the technology they need to be able to carry out their work or to attend online classes. This unequal access to the tools needed to participate is resulting in a huge gap between those who have these resources and those who have not, and this will be reflected in final assignments or exams.
This crisis has been hugely disruptive to young people’s lives, and they are rightly upset by the fact that they are missing out on a number of milestones – their debs night, the summer before college, or making the most of their final year. Young people understand the importance of social distancing and the sacrifices they have to make, but it does not make the loss of these important life events any less disappointing. This is felt most strongly by Leaving Cert students who are losing out on the opportunity to take part in the traditions that many of us experienced in our final few days of school, or in the summer after the exams.
For many Leaving Cert students, the fact that the exams are still going ahead suggests that they should be putting the same amount of work into their studies as they would if they were not living in these extreme circumstances, which is putting them under significant stress. Last week when we put a call out to Leaving Cert students to send us their questions for Minister for Education Joe McHugh, we received 1,500 emails in 8 hours – something that is totally unprecedented in our 15 years of working with young people. It is clear that these students feel deeply impacted by this crisis, and the uncertainty as to how their exams will be carried out and what it will mean for them moving forward into the future is causing a lot of anxiety.
Working from home is challenging for most people, but in particular, young people are struggling. Many young people have reported feeling less focused and less motivated at home, and they miss their everyday social interactions with their peers. Some students are struggling to even hand in assignments on time, and they feel that their teachers, lecturers, and parents are putting an unreasonable amount of pressure on them to get things done.
Understandably, these factors are having a significant impact on young people’s mental health. Just before the virus hit, SpunOut.ie launched a free, 24/7 text service for those in crisis. Through this service, anyone experiencing a crisis can contact a trained volunteer by texting SPUNOUT to 086 1800 280. Since the pandemic began, demand for this service has shot up by 60%, with those reporting feelings of stress and anxiety doubling in the same period. Young people are worried about how this virus is impacting on their lives, about vulnerable members of their family, and about what this means for their future.
This is not a time for us to expect more of the young people in our lives. They are already under enormous stress, and expecting them to carry on as normal is unreasonable. They need our compassion and understanding to help them through this crisis.
Hannah Byrne is Senior Online Content Producer with SpunOut.ie