Young people and reopenings. Let’s celebrate life going back to normal – but remember that normal can be daunting too.

13 Apr

With April 12 having arrived yesterday and the pubs and shops finally opening again in England, albeit in rather arctic conditions, it’s easy to think of life going back to normal.

Personally I was delighted to see my friends after months with a border terrier as a daily companion. Dare I admit my pals and I toasted “cry freedom”, in the words of Matt Hancock, as we had our first drink.

I tend to assume that everyone my own age (32) and younger is on the same page, eager to get going. The pandemic put society on pause, but now it’s back on play.

And yet every now and then one is reminded that everyone’s experience over the last year has been very different. Yes, lots of us were out last night, photographed by the press, no doubt, for looking dangerously cheerful. 

But at the same time there will be some mixed feelings about lockdown, reopenings and so forth among my age group – and indeed every age group. For instance, one newspaper recently polled the British public and found that fifteen per cent of people in my age group liked lockdown, and seven per cent “strongly” liked it. Those younger responded similarly. 

Who are these people? I wondered. It makes you realise that it’s impossible to make assumptions about how young and young(ish – like me) people will respond to reopenings in the current weeks, nor what our new “normal” will look like, as it’s been such a strange/ terrible/ (insert your own description here) year. 

While the Government will want everyone to get out and about – and let’s hope for the best, perhaps there will be a bit of hesitancy moving forward, as well as people wanting to keep elements of the lockdown.

One thing that’s overlooked about young people and reopenings is that they can be just as nervous about getting Coronavirus as older generations. The Government even thinks it needs vaccine passports to encourage young people to get inoculated.

Personally I am at the “relaxed” end of the spectrum in regards to my own risk. However, most of the people I know want their jab as soon as possible. Some young people may not even want to eat out/ shop until they’ve had it. They don’t need nudging for a vaccine at all, as the idea of Covid or having to isolate for weeks (financially risky for those who can’t work from home) is offputting enough.

There are also going to be big financial challenges for reopenings, particularly for those in their early twenties. While Rishi Sunak has done his utmost to protect jobs, data from last year showed that the under-25s experienced the biggest rise in unemployment during lockdown and they were more likely to be furloughed than any other group. Along with the trouble that’s been happening at universities, and increased calls to mental health services, this generation is going to need a lot of Governmental and societal support to get back on its feet.

One of the only good things for young people about lockdown was the working from home revolution, which has given some financial security. Perhaps this explains the fact that some have “liked” lockdown in the aforementioned poll, as it allowed so many to relocate/ put money away that would have otherwise gone on commuting, or other expenses.

The Government should go with working from home trends, instead of trying to engineer people moving back towards the office, as it’s helping to alleviate the problems with the housing market – a lot of which stem from demand being too high in the South East. Young people benefit from this change, as do the towns which they breathe new life into.

Overall this piece isn’t to put a downer on reopenings – and last night was a truly joyful occasion (even if it was almost impossible to find a table). But we need to acknowledge that it will be a mixed snapshot, in regards to how people feel as the economy reopens. It’s easy to think young people can go back to normal straight away, but many of them, despite having the fortune of low risk from the virus, have had a tough year, which will affect how the next months play out. Let’s keep this in mind.

Edward Davies: Work and relationships are the core components of mental health. The lockdown has damaged both.

4 Nov

Edward Davies is Director of Policy at the Centre for Social Justice

The Coronavirus crisis will have many knock-on effects, but one of the biggest – the decline in the nation’s mental health – is already daily headline fodder.

Research published in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that recent suicidal thoughts had increased from one in 13 to one in 10 respondents since March: that’s the equivalent of an extra 830,000 adults thinking of ending their life.

A mega-survey conducted by Mind, the mental health charity, found that more than half the adult population reported a deterioration in their mental state during lockdown. Even six months on from telling us all to ‘stay at home’ ONS analysis finds almost four in 10 adults reporting high levels of anxiety in October.

The Department of Health in England has said, predictably, that it is increasing investment in mental health services in response. But maybe it shouldn’t. We need to learn from the last few months that addressing the mental health needs of the country is not about an ever-increasing spiral of public service spending.

Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) are overwhelmed, and the knee-jerk response to expand them is understandable. But by the time a child gets there they are already likely to be suicidal. We must go much further upstream.

The last six months have reminded us that good public services, important though they are, are not at the root of mental wellbeing. In fact, the two core components have little to do with public services or government at all, and were profoundly undermined by the lockdown: our work and our relationships.

First, on work, there are few more important things to a person’s mental health than having a reason to get up in the morning. The Royal College of Psychiatrists is unequivocal about the importance of employment for people with mental health problems, they say it is “central to personal identity; provides structure and purpose to the day; gives opportunities for socialisation and friendship; and increases social networks – a core component of social capital”.

And secondly, on relationships, the evidence is even stronger. The Grant Study, a landmark 75-year longitudinal study of Harvard students, is utterly unequivocal about the importance of our relationships to mental and physical health:

“So what have we learned? What are the lessons that come from the tens of thousands of pages of information that we’ve generated on these lives? Well, the lessons aren’t about wealth or fame or working harder and harder. The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”

The quality of our close relationships is fundamental to child mental health, too. Family instability is the single biggest reason that children report attending CAMHS. But, deeper than that, NHS data shows the very structure of our family relationships has a fundamental impact on the mental health of our children.

A primary school child with married parents has a six per cent chance of a mental disorder. It rises to 12 per cent for cohabiting parents and 18 per cent for lone parents.

This overwhelming evidence on work and relationships is reflected in the “happiness data” initiated by David Cameron and still quietly being collated by the ONS. After our health itself, the two most significant factors in an individual reporting that they are satisfied with their life is their marital status and employment status – way more important than other items we might assume, such as housing or income.

So what does that mean coming out of this crisis? It means that whenever policy talk turns to mental health, we need to remember the lessons of both this recent pandemic and thousands of years of history and evidence.

Public services are hugely important, but we will not prevent this problem by constantly pouring water on the fire.

If we want to truly tackle mental health problems in this country, we need to go deeper. We need to ask why, if close relationships are so important, we have allowed the most stable relationship form – marriage – to collapse to a quarter of the rate of a generation ago.

Why do our homes get smaller, our commutes get longer, and more people than ever live completely alone? As a start we should invest in greater relationship support in the early years of children’s lives and revive the Government’s Family Test to ensure housing and economic policy supports rather than hinders families’ wellbeing.

The Government has committed (but not spent) £2.5 million to conduct research into family hubs; this shouldn’t be a dry exercise, but should be done quickly enough to provide a road map to the delivery of family hubs in every part of the country.

Rev-up family support at pivotal moments like the birth of a first child. Birth registration should be a gateway into family support at the very moment parents need it most. Simply fire-fighting this problem with well-intentioned hoses of ever more school counsellors and spiralling public services will never prevent it in the first place.