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55% of 22-year-old Irish women depressed in lockdown – 40% of men, says ESRI report 

The latest in the series of reports on Growing Up in Ireland published by the Economic and Social Research Institute makes for salutary reading. I was going to say “depressing” but depression is the core focus of the report entitled ‘Disrupted Transitions? Young Adults and the Covid-19 Pandemic’ authored by research professors Emer Smyth and Anne Nolan.

The report is based on data gathered in a December 2020 online survey of 2,277 people mostly aged 22 years at that time. This was during the famous pre-Christmas easing of restrictions that was followed by another prolonged period of lockdown on foot of a new wave of panic. As such it probably does provide an accurate snapshot of the state of mind of a cross section of that age cohort. 

Sometimes the news bytes taken from such reports fail to provide a more nuanced picture of what the research contains, and it is always worth reading them in depth. That is also true of this document but one of the key takeaways highlighted in the press release does in fact pretty much capture not only the burden of the lockdown but a rather sobering insight into the lives of many young people in Ireland. 

Using data from the Growing Up in Ireland COVID-19 survey, carried out in December 2020, the findings show that four-in-ten 22-year-old men and over half (55 per cent) of 22-year-old women were classified as depressed. These were much higher figures than two years previously when 22 per cent of men and 31 per cent of women were depressed. 

So, even prior to the Covid panic and the consequent disruption to employment, study, sports, family and social life, a significant proportion of the age cohort concerned was classified, under the Center for Epidemiological Studies criteria that was employed, as being depressed. That proportion almost doubled over the last nine months of 2020. 

The major cause beyond question was the fact that 84% experienced some form of disruption to employment, including 57% who lost a full or part time position (ix).  In person, full time education also stopped, as did almost all social activities including sports.  

 The report also, inter alia, takes the ground from under the far left/Sinn Féin mantra that the lockdown was providing us with some great opportunity to test out extremist statist policies in which greater state control over the economy and people’s lives would make them better.  

This you might recall was regarded by some leading figures on the left as a model for the future. However, as the authors state: “Rather than being a ‘great leveller’, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing inequalities across society” (xi.) 

The report also, unusually perhaps for a social sciences-based document, refers to what one might refer to the existential or even spiritual aspects of the lockdown. It notes the fact that “work is core” not only to a person’s livelihood, but to their “identity, and their well-being” (p.2)  

 The extent to which that is true is sometimes lost, and how what people do in their everyday lives adds meaning to their life. That may not be a paid job of course, nor even necessarily be a job that one likes doing as some of us are fortunate to, but the social connections and structures and patterns around all of that are vital to a person’s well-being. 

The sudden and forced deprivation of that – as particularly evident during the lockdown – can have implications that go well beyond any financial impact. Indeed as the authors point out, most people surveyed were protected from the worst of that through the Pandemic Unemployment Payment (PUP).   

The fact that some focused on that either to be increased or extended even when the panic was abating does not say much to me about their “vision” of what life ought to be. Humans are not battery hens nor bees. Some of those who thought that paying people to do nothing while locked up at home was a good thing might do well to read some early Marx on alienation.  

The fact that so many young people could be categorised as depressed is proof of the much more profound and malign consequences of stopping people from working or studying or attending sports events as either participants or observers – along with all of the other myriad social and cultural patterns that were stopped – had.  And the fact that sometimes those healthy practises were replaced by ones that are harmful both physically and to a person’s sense of themselves. 

The report goes into considerable detail into the findings, and it is well presented and argued. There might be a temptation on the part of those of us who were opposed to the extreme application of the restrictions to adopt a “told you so” attitude, but the facts really speak for themselves.   

Rather, it is up to those who implemented and defended what even by the standards of other European countries was an extreme lockdown, to justify in the context of this report how the massive disruption to the lives of an age cohort that was minimally impacted by serious health issues from Covid-19 was justified. 

The aftermath of all that in relation to the mental health of young adults is starkly contained in the very last sentence of the report: 

The suspension of treatment in the early months of the pandemic, and subsequent social distancing measures, have further lengthened already long waiting times for mental health care and treatment (Brick et al., 2020; McNicholas et al., 2021) and highlight the funding of mental health services as a policy priority. 

So even within the narrow parameters of “social care,” the whole thing was a disaster for many of the people who were affected. Let us ensure that nothing similar takes place again under some other statist engineering project.  

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