What will the long-term impact of the pandemic be on gen Z?

Body+Soul looks at what the pandemic means for the future – and for future generations.

OK, what’s going on?

The kids are not all right. “Since the pandemic began, there have been significant increases in reports of psychological distress in young people,” Dr Jaelea Skehan, director of non-profit organisation Everymind, explains to Body+Soul.

Indeed, according to national free phone-counselling service Kids Helpline, there has been a 99 per cent spike in emergency interventions where a counsellor needs to make contact with police, child-safety or ambulance services because a child or young person is deemed to be at imminent risk.

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The majority of emergency interventions were initiated in response to suicide attempts and child sexual abuse by a family member within the home. Hasn’t it been hard for everyone?

From becoming unemployed and struggling to keep small businesses afloat to relationship breakdowns, there have of course been plenty of adult-sized worries, too.

But according to Skehan, a marked difference is that the adolescent brain is particularly vulnerable to stress.

Teens don’t yet have the pre-frontal cortical capability to think long term or maintain their calm.

And while all of us have had to endure isolation and uncertainty, young people who are at risk of harm have had their access to the safety net of schools and other psychosocial supports such as sporting clubs pulled out from under them.

Gen Z are also prone to becoming highly distressed by the pressures placed on their parents or by additional conflict in the home – in other words, those adult worries may unknowingly be passed on.

Why don’t they just talk about it?

This is the time in their life when young people are meant to be going out dancing, falling in love for the first time, celebrating their 18th birthdays and ruminating over formal dresses.

Instead, over the past 16 months, they’ve spent a lot of time in their bedrooms alone and trying to stay connected via their screens.

Seventeen-year-old Sydneysider Jade* says her grief has been compounded over the milestone moments she has lost, but says she hasn’t felt she could voice her disappointment for fear of being labelled a “snowflake”, she tells Body+Soul.

“Of course, there are worse things than missing out on your 18th birthday party, but the fact is I’ll never get that celebration back. It’s valid to feel disappointed.”

So, what can we do about it?

Regular sleep, exercise and staying connected to friends and loved ones are the basic mental-health building blocks, but now more than ever we need to listen to our young people.

What many teens say they need is some joy.

Kath Woolcock, a senior educator at Camberwell Girls Grammar in Melbourne, says that during the 112-day lockdown in Melbourne her school set #TogetherApart challenges for families to complete each week.

“The key was in creating anticipation to see what might be coming up next, but we also wanted to help orchestrate moments of laughter.”

As Queensland-based child psychiatrist Dr Kaylene Henderson tells Body+Soul, “We mustn’t lose sight of what children of all ages need in order to thrive, pandemic or no pandemic: connection and empathy.”

“This is something we can all provide [to allow] our teens to feel confident that they can turn to their village for help when it all seems too hard.”

A first-hand account from a Year 12 Graduate

“Year 12 during 2020 was nothing like the final year of school I had imagined. Every day away from an engaging classroom, talking to teachers and spending time with friends led to increasing anxiety and meltdowns.

I felt the effects of not physically being in a classroom and no social interactions at times when I needed support the most.

This year of disappointment also meant no 18th birthday parties, no final sports day, no muck-up day, no valedictory dinner – and no graduation.

I missed out on these special moments that friends and I had dreamt about since we began high school. On the day of our cancelled valedictory dinner, I dressed up in my gown and took pictures anyway.

I continued to study hard and received the College Dux Award of my school. I found my own way to finish this bizarre year successful and happy, by never letting these setbacks stop me.”

Kaia Young, 19, Melbourne

If you or anyone you know is struggling, get in touch with Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800.