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New Study says lockdown led to a huge jump in mental health difficulties for young people

New data from 34 countries including Ireland, illustrates that covid restrictions accelerated a global decline in mental health among young people.

The latest data from the Mental Health Million Project reveals that nearly half of young adults surveyed experienced mental health symptoms during the pandemic’s second year.

These young people took a ‘mental health quotient’ survey online. The process takes 15-20 mins and provides a detailed personalized mental wellbeing report on completion.

The May 2022 report reveals that ‘the pandemic-era decline has accelerated an existing global trend, and led to the widespread disintegration of “social self,”’ according to the report’s authors, Sapien Labs – a US based research organisation.

Specifically, the report found that links between social media use and depression among young people were exacerbated as social interactions were restricted and education methods moved online.

The Mental Health Million Project commenced in 2019 with a sample of a few thousand people across four major English-speaking countries (US, Canada, UK and India) and grew to include 223,000 across 34 countries in 2021.

The data revealed that pre-restrictions in 2019, 21% of young adults aged 18 to 24 were struggling with their mental health, almost twice as high as those aged 45 and over.

“The onset of the pandemic dramatically amplified this difference with a huge increase from 21% to 50% among this cohort in 2020, followed by a smaller increase from 50% to 54% in 2021,” the report states.

The report highlights key findings related to global mental wellbeing noting that:

Mental decline in young adults was significantly correlated with the local stringency of lockdown measures associated with the pandemic.

Young adults’ ability to relate to and interact with others (the “social self”) has been seriously impaired in over half of those surveyed.

“Pandemic-era declines reflect an acceleration of a trend that began in 2010, prior to which younger generations had the best measurable psychological well-being. Prior to the pandemic, this trend was strongly correlated with the growth of smartphone usage,” the report states.

Asked by Gript.ie for her thoughts on the origin and effects of covid restrictions regarding social isolation, Sapien Labs founder Dr Tara Thiagarajan said restrictions regarding lockdown emerged from China.

“The Covid restrictions regarding lockdown and the resulting social isolation originated in Wuhan China and were copied across the world.  I don’t think anyone would have explicitly predicted how much social isolation would disproportionately impact younger people.  Now we know.  The question is how long this impact will persist and what we can do to reverse it,” she said.

The Sapien Labs’ data was measured in samples across the internet-enabled populations of 34 countries and found that on average, people are spending seven to ten hours per day online.

“Where once children spent several hours a day engaged in in-person social interaction, adding up to, in our estimation, 10,000 to 25,000 hours by the time they reached adulthood, for generations growing up in the Internet world that number is likely closer to 5,000 and for some, even as low as 1,500. The lack of sufficient social engagement may even have neurobiological consequences,” the report states.

Increased social media use was associated with poor sleep, poor body-image, and low self-esteem, lower self-control, more distractibility, more difficulty making friends, less emotional stability, being more difficult to care for, and inability to finish tasks.
“…increases in adolescent depression and suicide rates between 2010 and 2015 were greatest for those who were most active on “new media” (e.g., social media and electronic devices such as smartphones) and that adolescents who were on social media at least 7 hours a day were more than twice as likely than those who used social media less often to have been diagnosed with depression and/or anxiety in the past year.

“There is also the distortion of social perceptions by the Internet where adolescents compare themselves to a virtual reality that does not match our physical reality. Furthermore, the virtual medium may not effectively engage the neurobiological systems designed for pro-social behaviour.

“For example, adults demonstrate poor emotional fluency while using video-based communication systems compared to in-person behaviour,” the authors state.

Writing in The Hill last month, Dr Thiagarajan said her organisation had developed a measure of mental wellbeing.

“The Mental Health Quotient or MHQ aggregates a self-assessment of 47 attributes of mental function on a scale of impact to life function. These include elements such as self-image and self-worth, emotional control, drive and motivation, focus and concentration, optimism and conversely, feelings of sadness and distress, fear and anxiety, and so on, to position individuals on a spectrum from distressed to thriving.

“It is a measure that captures not just happiness but rather a 360 view of mental wellbeing, the closest measure we have to the prosperity of mind,” Dr Thiagarajan wrote.


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