Things drastically changed in 2020 when COVID-19 entered and swept the entire world. From the sudden mask mandate to sanitizing everything from the grocery store, the pandemic has shaped many in various ways, including the youth.
On January 30, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19 as a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC). Since its outbreak, WHO estimates around 755,041,562 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 6.8 million deaths from the virus. As of January 2023, more than 13,168,935,724 doses of vaccination have been distributed throughout the world.
The virus swept globally, leaving South Korea with approximately 30 million confirmed cases as of January 2023, and around 25 million cases in Italy. South Korea has a population of 51.74 million which means more than 57 percent of the country was infected with COVID-19.
Hospitals were flooded and medical professionals had to spend endless days helping COVID-19 patients. The hospital beds were swamped, and medical supplies were constantly out of stock. Per CDC, with the arrival of the SARS-CoV-2 B.1.617.2 (Delta) variant, ICU beds were at 75 percent capacity and eventually surpassed 100 percent capacity.
The virus not only impacted us with physical symptoms, such as fever or sore throat, or even more fatal symptoms but the aftermath has been equally detrimental.
For a 24-year-old individual who wished to remain anonymous, life changed drastically after he caught COVID-19. Not only did it bring days and weeks of physical symptoms, such as high fever and fatigue, but also rigorous mental health concerns.
Before the virus hit, he was an average individual studying and working hard to fulfill his daily tasks. He did struggle with gastritis from time to time, but it wasn’t something to seriously worry about. When he caught and recovered from the virus, however, his life was tipped upside down. His body felt different. He had difficulty breathing. He was constantly fatigued and his gastritis grew worse. He lost more than 30 pounds and his white blood cell count dropped to 1.9 from 6.0.
His physical complications were not the only thing that greeted him after catching COVID-19. His mental health also had an impact. Whenever he went outside or was in a crowded place, he suddenly had difficulty breathing, exhibiting symptoms similar to a panic attack. After 10 months of recovering, he finally started feeling better. Although he is now in a better state — both mentally and physically — the pandemic brought many changes he had never imagined going through.
From limited social interactions to physical complications rooted in the virus, the pandemic changed the entire world. In an exclusive interview with Healthnews, Jennifer Reid, M.D., a board-certified psychiatrist and award-winning medical educator in Philadelphia, shared how the pandemic shaped the mentality of youths and how we can help.
"Humans learn through experience. The lockdowns and increased isolation of the pandemic have significantly limited opportunities for us to engage with others, try new activities, and navigate new challenges, which are all necessary for healthy development. We have been living with heightened uncertainty, which understandably increases our perception of risk in the form of anxiety," said Reid.
The pandemic especially played a critical role on young people, as school, sports, socializing were all put to an extreme halt. Students didn’t get the graduation they deserved. Basketball teams couldn’t travel to show what they’d been practicing the entire school year. Prom, an iconic American event, never happened. College graduates had immense difficulty securing a job as the virus hit. Even for those who secured a job, their first day of work consisted of staying at home with a cup of coffee, instead of commuting in their newest corporate outfit surrounded by other newcomers and coworkers.
How did the pandemic influence students at school?
"My daughter was a really active student before the pandemic," shared Lauren Choi, mother of a current college student.
"She was not only studious but really involved in the high school community. She was in track and exercised daily to maintain her fit figure. Then the pandemic really hit us bad."
With the arrival of COVID-19, her school immediately went virtual, meaning no more track or community activities. Lauren’s daughter had to spend her day sitting in her room with a computer, trying to focus on her studies.
"I could tell it was really hard for her because she is naturally super outgoing. She loved going to school and meeting her friends, and also participating in different school events. We used to also go to a near gym multiple times a week to work out together, but obviously, that stopped."
From an outgoing and sporty student, Choi's daughter gradually turned into a homebody who never went out, even for a walk.
"I eventually had to convince her to go on a ten-minute walk with me every day because she wouldn’t leave her bed. She was so scared of the virus and just got used to staying in her room. Her grades also dropped because she just wasn’t trying. She was on her phone or computer, scrolling through different social media apps. Now, she’s off to college and is doing much better. But back then I was concerned that she had changed into a completely different person."
Choi's daughter is clearly not the only young person impacted by COVID-19. It left many students and young adults with no joy and restricted countless favorable opportunities. The Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF) analysis of the Household Pulse Survey revealed that during the pandemic, 56 percent of youths have reported showing symptoms of depression and/or anxiety, which is far higher than other age groups.
How can we help youths stay active and healthy?
Isolating yourself and not getting enough social interaction can deteriorate one’s mental health, especially for those who are still fairly young and need that essential social activity.
Virtual learning is indeed a great option to learn from the comfort of one’s home, but it diminishes a student’s ability to grow social skills and practice human-to-human interaction. Instead of running around in the playground during recess, students learned to click buttons and maneuver computers. College orientation and frat parties were replaced with Zoom classes, taking away the crucial components of the university experience.
"Social interaction is a key element in children’s development. We know there are many health risks associated with loneliness and isolation, as well as sedentary lifestyles. Growing into a functional adult means learning to interact with a wide variety of people, trying new things even if we fail, and building resilience," expressed Reid.
With the pandemic came a greater need for screen time as everything was shut down. Kids relied on social media to spend time, and families used their phones to connect with one another as quarantine shut down borders. According to a study published by the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, social media usage has heightened among all age groups in Spain as a method of coping mechanism during the pandemic. Instead of family gatherings or a trip, many relied on their phones as a time turner while slouching on the couch. The study also revealed that the heightened usage was most significant among 18 to 24-year-olds.
Reid continued that it is important to take care of ourselves during this difficult and confusing time, both physically and mentally. "Although there are some benefits for youth with social media, including decreasing isolation for those who are in underrepresented groups and promoting the importance of mental and physical health, it cannot fully replace face-to-face interactions. Overuse can also take time away from activities more likely to build healthy relationships, engagement, and meaning, 3 key areas shown to improve our sense of well-being."
While reaching for the phone as soon as we wake up and before we close our eyes at night may be tempting, too much screen time and not enough physical activity can lead to a diminished quality of life. Despite the arrival of COVID-19, we have to ensure our own health to guarantee a flourishing day.
Reid concluded: "We know that there are key factors for healthy development: adequate sleep, nutritionally-dense food, regular exercise, and supportive friendships. I would encourage all readers to try to moderate their social media use and curate their feeds to create a positive, engaging stream of information. Regular contact with friends through texting, even a phone call, is preferable to scrolling and liking images online. Time outdoors, when possible, has also been shown to improve depression, and can be a safe way to gather with friends and family."
- WHO COVID-19 Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC) Global research and innovation forum
- WHO WHO Coronavirus (COVID-19) Dashboard
- International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health Is Social Media a New Type of Social Support? Social Media Use in Spain during the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Mixed Methods Study
- CDC Impact of Hospital Strain on Excess Deaths During the COVID-19 Pandemic — United States, July 2020–July 2021
- Kaiser Family Foundation (KKF) The Implications of COVID-19 for Mental Health and Substance Use