How can we help young people recover after the loneliness and losses of lockdown?

A group of young people

Ahead of IPPO’s roundtable discussion on what this summer’s programmes for schoolchildren should look like, here is a young person’s perspective on how best to support their wellbeing and recovery

Mahveen Alam

As a young person myself, I continually see concerns being expressed by children and young adults about their wellbeing, in ways that policymakers may not always be aware of. Through social media, for example, I have noticed a rise in hatred of online learning and uncertainty about what constitutes ‘normality’. Through direct conversations with friends and family, I’m convinced there has been a large decline of wellbeing in young people, mainly due to the loneliness that lockdown has created.

Even among young children, there are constant worries regarding schoolwork, health and, most importantly, feeling lonely. With statistics pointing to an increase in depression and anxiety among young people due to COVID-19 and school closures, I believe the key focus right now should be on the added stresses around their friendships and support networks.

While all schoolchildren and college students may be facing these difficulties, I worry this issue is particularly prominent for pupils currently in years 7 and 12. Most of these started a new school at the height of the pandemic (September 2020), with both year groups therefore having the added pressures of worrying about ‘how will I make new friends when I can’t even be in school?’

Social media can keep friends and family members connected during these difficult times, and personally I think parents should not worry that their children are on their phones too much. However, even young people know that ‘it’s not the same’. The physical time lost with loved ones, feeling lonely and ‘trapped’ inside our homes cannot be bought back – and due to the intense nature of this period, some young people now have concerns surrounding how it will feel like to reconnect again.

Furthermore, although young people can now – finally – start to plan ‘motives’ (going out) and meet up with their friends again, it does not take away from the fact many have lost loved ones. Particularly those in younger year groups may not understand death – and its challenges will have only been amplified due to lockdown, by not being able to go to funerals and grieve with family and friends. I’m concerned that there seems to be a lack of mental health support for children and young people around this specific type of loneliness.

How loneliness affects different communities

As I am from a working-class BAME background, I specifically want to embrace the issue of loneliness in terms of how it affects different communities in different ways. And this quickly leads to the question of how to support parents and carers too at this time, to help their understanding of what their children may be going through.

Many children are currently ‘stuck’ indoors with their parents and unable to speak to them regarding their loneliness. Moreover, I think lockdown has been harder for some children from Black, Asian and minority ethnic families as parents may have language barriers and a lack of understanding of the UK education system, which may have made their children feel more isolated. This can also result in them feeling like they cannot speak to their parents due to mental health stigma in their culture.

Similarly, children from LGBTQIA+ communities may feel confused with their identity, feeling like they have their own internal lockdown which they do not know how to express to parents, further adding to the burden of the pandemic.

It’s essential we make sure parents from all these communities understand there is support available for themselves and their children; this will allow for general better wellbeing, which will result in good communication within the family. In particular, we need parents to be able to support their children as they continue their reconnecting process during the coming summer holidays.

So what should be done?

My main concern is around helping young people reconnect with their families and each other once lockdown is finally over. This includes making sure all children of all ages can partake in high-quality summer programmes to support their wellbeing – this would mean there is finally some ‘light at the end of the dark tunnel’.

For primary school ages (below 12), there could be activities based on all those missed school trips to, for example, local museums and aquariums – if possible, involving both teachers and parents. This way, children can connect and make friends, teachers can connect with children and parents, and parents can connect with other parents.

As a student psychologist, I’m learning how important these formative experiences are to children’s development: going on school trips, exploring, and active learning helps their emotional development, builds confidence and makes memories. I’d like to see at least three days over the summer holiday period devoted to these ‘get-togethers’, with the aim of making a positive change in mental health for everyone involved.

For secondary school ages (12-16), a more extensive programme of activities would offer the chance for friendships to build, allowing young people to have a secure support network and also build better relationships with their teachers. This could involve doing activities including arts, music, sports, photography, camping, rock climbing, archery, drama etc., while staying away from home for a couple of days with teachers. A similar approach is found within the NCS Challenge, which allowed myself as a teenager to get away from home and have the opportunity to learn new skills while making friends in a positive environment.

For sixth-form/college students (16-18), summer projects should give them opportunities to build on their skills. At this age, I found it very difficult to get adequate work experience, which is now heightened due to the pandemic. Thus, there should also be projects that involve careers and volunteering to allow young people, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, to start adding to their CV. Another approach for teenagers who may be thinking about what to do after college is ‘Summer University’, which gives students a chance to learn more about university life and the career they may wish to follow.

There are two main issues that need urgent attention if we are to get these programmes organised in time, and get young people feeling better about themselves ahead of the next school year in September. The first surrounds outreach, and how to ensure that young people from every community know they can participate in these summer programmes, and how to demonstrate that these can be a really positive way to help them reconnect and make new friends.

At the same time, we also need to think about ways to get young people talking more generally about the issues they may be facing – be it friendship worries, loneliness, or something more severe. They need to know how to ask for support if need be, and whom to go to in school if there are any issues surrounding wellbeing when they return. And just as social media has been a bit of a lifeline for lots of young people during lockdown, I believe it has an important role to play as we emerge back into some kind of new normality – while of course ensuring it is just part of a daily routine that also encourages lots of outdoor activities, creativity, food and sleep.

This summer is crucial because young people of all ages will not succeed academically without being in the correct headspace. Recovery should start by focusing on rebuilding confidence, friendships and wellbeing.

Mahveen Alam is studying psychology and criminology at City University, a member of the Young Person’s Mental Health Advisory Group at King’s College, and a qualified ‘appropriate adult’ to help support vulnerable people detained in police custody.

Further reading: what should summer support programmes look like for schoolchildren this year?