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One in two of the world’s youth subject to anxiety or depression, shows ILO survey

Half of young people aged between 18 and 29 are possibly subject to anxiety or depression, a new survey has found. 17 percent are probably affected. According to a survey conducted by the International Labour Organization (ILO) between April and May 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has had a “systematic, deep and disproportionate” impact on young people’s lives. Over 12,000 responses from 112 countries were used to assess the pandemic’s effects on employment, education, mental health, rights and social activism.

The ‘Youth and COVID-19: impacts on jobs, education, rights and mental well-being’ study revealed that young people have serious concerns about their future. 51 percent expect their education to be delayed, while nine percent fear that their performance will suffer or even receive failing grades. In addition, school closures and the consequential disruption to learning and working have resulted in mental health issues. This is mostly due to the fact that “aspirations and their realization are an integral part of a young person’s mental well-being”, the survey said.

The ILO also named family stress, isolation and fear of domestic abuse as factors which deteriorate mental health. While acknowledging the importance of lockdown measures, young people reported that they limit their freedom of movement. One in three (33 percent) stated that their right to participate in public affairs has been restricted and about a quarter (24 percent) believe that inaccuracies around the pandemic negatively impact their right to access information. Finally, a fifth of youth (21 percent) reported that financial struggles jeopardise their right to housing.

The study found that mental health correlates with age. Younger people (aged 18-29 years) experienced poorer mental well-being outcomes than those in the 30-34 age group, reporting that they felt never or rarely “relaxed”, “optimistic” or “close to other people”.

These results are particularly worrying, considering the early onset of most mental health conditions, with half of them starting by the age of 14. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), an estimated 10-20 percent of adolescents globally suffer from mental health issues and illnesses, yet a large number do not receive treatment.

Mental well-being depends on a variety of factors, such as “a desire for greater autonomy, pressure to conform with peers, exploration of sexual identity, and increased access to and use of technology,” explains the WHO. “The more risk factors adolescents are exposed to, the greater the potential impact on their mental health.”

Media influence, pressure to conform to gender norms, home life and relationships with peers also constitute stress factors in young people’s lives, as do violence and socioeconomic problems. As a result, the WHO names suicide as the third leading cause of death in people aged 15-29.

The current crisis puts young people at risk. According to the ILO, “history has shown us that a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic can have protracted and severe consequences for younger populations”. More than a third (38 percent) of the ‘lockdown generation’ are uncertain of their future career prospects due to the pandemic. According to the study, these results highlight the link between young people’s education and labour market integration, on the one hand, and their mental well-being, on the other.

Finally, the survey revealed that women are more likely to experience possible or probable anxiety or depression as well as more uncertainty about their future than men. This could indicate that young women assume greater responsibility within the home.

To counteract recent developments, the ‘Youth and COVID-19’ study calls for “urgent, targeted and smarter investments in decent jobs for youth”. It also stresses the importance of employment and training guarantee programmes, social protection and unemployment insurance benefits as well as higher quality distance learning and psychosocial support. “Unless urgent action is taken, young people are likely to suffer severe and long-lasting impacts from the pandemic,” the ILO said, adding that it is critical that youth voices are heard.

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