China’s COVID restrictions affect young people’s mental health

cnsphoto via Reuters
A hotline operator for a free counseling service answers a phone in Shenyang, Liaoning province, China in February 2020.

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Zhang Meng suffered from depression last December. The 20-year-old found herself sobbing on the stairs of her dorm, in despair over the repeated COVID closures of her college campus in Beijing.

The lockdowns had meant she was mostly confined to her room and unable to find friends. There were also strict restrictions on when she could visit the canteen or take a shower. Describing himself as someone who craves in-person social interaction, Zhang said the restrictions had “removed the safety net that was holding me back and I felt like my whole being was collapsing.”

That month, he was diagnosed with major depression and anxiety.

Yao, also 20 and who asked that his first name not be used, suffered his first depression in high school where he was boarding, unable to understand why the confinement policies were so harsh. He said that one day he had to take refuge in the school bathroom, crying so hard “it was like my insides were crying”.

At the beginning of 2021, while at Peking University, unable to get rid of this depression and also unhappy that he had not taken the classes he wanted for fear of upsetting his father, Yao tried to commit suicide.

China has used some of the toughest and most frequent lockdowns in the world in its determination to eradicate every COVID outbreak, arguing it saves lives and pointing to its low pandemic death toll of around 5,200 so far. day.

It’s an effort he’s shown few signs of giving up on, but the impact of the policy on mental health worries medical experts and, as Zhang and Yao’s experiences have shown, it’s already been around for some time. ravages.

“The lockdowns in China have had a huge human cost with the shadow of poor mental health that will negatively affect Chinese culture and economy for years to come,” claims a June editorial in the British medical journal The Lancet. .

In particular, experts fear for the mental health of adolescents and young adults, who are more vulnerable due to their age and lack of control over their lives, and who must cope with educational stresses and economic pressures far greater than previous generations.

The number of young people affected is potentially enormous. Some 220 million Chinese children and young people have been confined for extended periods due to COVID restrictions, the Education Ministry estimated in 2020. It did not respond to a Reuters request for an updated figure. day and a comment on the subject.

Children under pressure

COVID brakes have sometimes forced young people into extreme situations.

During Shanghai’s draconian two-month lockdown this year, for example, some 15-18-year-olds had to self-isolate in hotels because they weren’t allowed to go home.

“They had to cook for themselves and had no one to talk to, so it was very difficult for them,” said Frank Feng, vice principal of Lucton, an international school in Shanghai.

While data examining the mental health of young people in China and the impact of lockdowns and the pandemic is sparse, what there is is grim.

According to an April 2020 survey of 39,751 students and published in the American journal Current Psychology in January, about 20% of Chinese middle and high school students learning remotely during lockdowns have had suicidal thoughts. Suicidal ideation is sometimes described as when a person thinks they would be better off dead, although the person may not have any intention of committing suicide at the time.

More broadly across all age groups, searches for “psychological advice” on Chinese search engine Baidu more than tripled in the first seven months of 2022 compared to the same period a year earlier.

For many teens, the COVID lockdowns came during critical review years. If the stigma of being infected isn’t enough, the desperation to avoid missing a life-altering exam due to catching COVID or, much more often, being considered a close contact compels many families self-isolate for months ahead of exam times, teachers said.

Compounding this academic pressure, job prospects are dismal. While overall unemployment stands at 5.4%, the urban youth rate has climbed to 19.9%, the highest level on record, as corporate hiring declines due to the pandemic and… the regulatory crackdown on the tech and tutoring industries.

Most of the students are also only children due to China’s one-child policy from 1980 to 2015 and are aware that they will have to support their parents in the future.

According to a Fudan University survey of around 4,500 young people this year, around 70% expressed varying degrees of anxiety.

The pandemic and lockdowns are also believed to be fueling disaffection with the intense pressure to get ahead in life, symbolized by the so-called ‘flattening out’ movement which last year gained huge traction on social media in China. while many young people have embraced the idea of ​​doing the bare minimum to get by.

A review of two decades?

For its part, the Ministry of Education has launched a series of measures to improve the mental health of students during the pandemic, including the introduction of compulsory mental health courses in colleges and a campaign to increase the number of counselors. school teachers, therapists and psychiatrists in the country.

But mental health has only gained attention in China in the past 20 years, and the ministry’s efforts to install counselors in schools are relatively new. Most schools wouldn’t have had one last year. Guidelines it released in June 2021 call for a ratio of at least one counselor per 4,000 students nationwide.

The official media have also taken up the subject.

A June 6 article in China Daily that focused on the mental health impact of COVID restrictions on vulnerable groups, including adolescents, quoted Lu Lin, president of Peking University Sixth Hospital, as saying that “COVID’s toll on people’s mental health could last more than two decades.” ”

Data from early 2020 shows that a third of residents who isolated themselves at home had experienced conditions such as depression, anxiety and insomnia, he said.

Lu estimated that most would recover after an outbreak ends, but 10% would be unable to fully return to normal, noting that he had teenage patients who had developed a gambling addiction, had trouble sleeping and continued to be downcast and reluctant to come out.

For Zhang, the lockdowns and his ensuing depression completely changed his view of the world. Once satisfied with her plans to study Chinese language and literature, disillusionment with how the lockdowns were handled sparked interest in studying abroad.

“I was quite patriotic when I graduated from high school…that feeling is slowly going away. It’s not that I don’t trust the government anymore, it’s more the feeling that the smell of masks and sanitizer has penetrated deep into my bones.