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Diving into COVID survey data, part 1


This blog was written by Adam Peel, Research and Learning Manager at the National Youth Agency

Since the start of the pandemic, NYA and the Centre for Youth Impact have been gathering together a range of the surveys focused on the impact of coronavirus on young people and the organisations that exist to support them. The data these surveys produce may be useful to researchers, practitioners and policy makers, but we recognise that the sheer number means it’s unlikely that many people will get the opportunity to really dive into the findings. This is the first in a series of blogs that will be looking at the key themes across the surveys, and what they are telling us (and what they aren’t). 

Most of the surveys capture ‘snapshots’ from early in lockdown to understand the consequences of COVID-19 on young people, their families, and organisations that support them - there are fewer ‘longitudinal’ surveys, though this may change moving forwards. 

To date, we have collated nearly 120 surveys, of which 56 have data available

For the first in our series of blogs, we are looking at the mental health of young people during lockdown: for both young people and the services supporting them, mental health concerns are consistently a major theme across the surveys.

What the data tell us:
Workers supporting young people are worried that young people’s mental health needs will be more prevalent in the future, more acute, and that the most vulnerable are not accessing the services they need at the moment. 

Whilst it’s important to note that most young people say they are ‘coping fine’ or ‘well’ at present, a general reading of the data suggests that more young people than pre-covid are feeling more lonely and isolated, some are more anxious, and there are clear concerns and worries that are widely shared by young people.

However, many of the worries and concerns are based on the uncertainty about the negative consequences of COVID-19, reflecting the early stage in the lockdown that surveys were undertaken.  

Young people’s worries differ in scale, nature and scope with age.

For the youngest children, worries are fewer, less prominent, and are rooted in their immediate environment with concerns around the health and wellbeing of friends and family.

For slightly older children, these same concerns are more acute. They also develop wider concerns stemming from the uncertainty about what the ‘new normal’ will be for their communities and social relationships, and whether the information they are receiving is trustworthy or is ‘fake news’. There are also concerns over impacts on exams, schoolwork and physical health. 

Older children and adolescents are most worried, with concerns relating to how they as an individual will be affected by societal changes, particularly with regard to the economy, employment, and education outcomes.

Young people’s concerns are also altruistic; they are increasingly concerned about the wellbeing of others, including an underlying concern about the effect on family health and household finances (this is more marked for those living in poverty).

As such, the worries of young people are generally more rooted in how COVID-19 will affect them, their family, friends and wider community, and what opportunities will be available to them in the future – there is less (although not insignificant) concern with how their own mental health will be affected. 

However, where young people have existing mental health needs, they report feeling more concerned than usual about their own wellbeing. Mental health concerns are also more prominent amongst those young people facing other risks or disadvantages, including amongst care-leavers and those with disabilities. 

The data also show that young women are significantly more worried than young men.

Coping Strategies:
Despite feeling ‘bored’, most young people report coping ‘fine’ or ‘well’. TV, social media and existing hobbies (especially gaming for boys and young men) are providing good ways to relax. Many are enjoying spending more time doing things they may have previously partaken in less, such as being with family, exercising and reading. It appears that the more time a young person spends outdoors or exercising, the less worried they feel.

The data also suggest that many young people are turning their hand to a new hobby, or developing new skills.

Where a little extra support is needed, most young people are coping by reaching out to others via digital platforms, especially to friends. The data shows that not only are young people reaching out to others for support, they are also reaching out to offer or give support, including contributing more to the community than they usually would (such as helping elderly neighbours with shopping etc.), and that this is also contributing to positive wellbeing.

However, those with existing vulnerabilities or self-reported mental health needs are not accessing as many services or support as they used to pre-covid, and there is a lack of confidence in knowing where and how to access good quality support for mental health and wellbeing during the pandemic.

What’s next?
The data shows a lot of uncertainty for young people, and that the uncertainty itself may have an impact on their mental health. For example:

  • How much will return to ‘normal’? What does ‘the new normal’ mean? 
  • How will schooling change and will grades and university places be affected?
  • Will graduation and employment be significantly impacted, and what will the financial impacts be?

As the route out of lockdown emerges, we should be better able to understand the longer-term changes in young people’s mental health, including against existing annual surveys, and to be able to attribute these to the different concerns via the numerous longitudinal surveys that are underway.
However, the surveys already highlight some important insights in how to support children and young people’s mental wellbeing during the pandemic: 

  • Taking an ‘age-sensitive’ path that responds to the needs and concerns of specific age groups
  • Signposting children and young people to regular, trust-worthy and clear sources of news and information
  • Supporting children and young people to help out, support others and be involved in their local community efforts
  • Promoting opportunities for children and young people to spend time outside 
  • Reaching out to young people with self-reported or known mental health needs to offer them specific support 
  • Celebrating and recognising where children and young people say they are coping and finding ways to manage stress and boredom