Young People’s Mental Health Struggles — The Other Pandemic

September 2, 2020 HMS

In the six short months since the World Health Organization officially declared the COVID-19 crisis a global pandemic, there have been 20 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and more than 750,000 deaths globally. With grim statistics and uncertainty galore, one thing is abundantly clear: things aren’t going back to ‘normal’ anytime soon (if ever). 

As COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc worldwide, considerable attention has been given to the physical effects of the novel coronavirus on different populations. The elderly, of course, have paid a heavy price, with many losing their lives to the disease. Individuals with chronic conditions like diabetes have also experienced more severe COVID-19 infections.

The health impacts of the COVID-19, however, aren’t just physical. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) made this abundantly clear in a recent worldwide survey of young adults ranging in age from 15 to 24-years-old. Although members of this demographic group are not highly concerned about contracting COVID-19 themselves, they are very concerned about the impact of the virus on their mental health, as well as on their educational and employment opportunities. These findings, often described as “a hidden crisis” or “the parallel pandemic,” are consistent with other studies.

According to the National Health Council, American teenagers and young adults experienced higher rates of anxiety and depression in May 2020 than individuals in other age groups. Likely contributors are social isolation and loneliness — both increase the risk of depression and anxiety. Researchers have discovered that young people are as much as three times more likely to develop depression in the future due to social isolation. In addition, the effects of loneliness on young peoples’ mental health are evident as much as nine years later.

What can health plans and providers do? One path forward is to create member and patient engagement programs that specifically target young people. These communications should acknowledge the very real mental health impacts of the current pandemic. They should also connect people with behavioral health resources, such as telemedicine-based therapists, local support groups and more. It may be helpful to identify low-risk ways for young people to develop social connections, as well.

As with everything COVID-19 related, the key is to determine the level of risk associated with different activities, and to balance the risks with the benefits. Young people crave social interactions and are more likely to accept the health risks associated with those activities. Rather than shaming people for their actions, health plans and providers should make it easy for this demographic group to get tested for the novel coronavirus. This is especially important for young people living with older family members who may be more vulnerable to a severe COVID-19 infection.

The pandemic is likely to have both long- and short-term mental health implications, particularly for those most at risk of new or exacerbated mental health struggles. Consider incorporating health outreach programs for a proven approach to reach and effectively engage your most vulnerable populations. Now more than ever before, it’s critical that everyone from Gen Z to Baby Boomers prioritize their physical and mental health.  So, what is the single most impactful thing that health plans and providers can do to safeguard healthcare consumers’ wellbeing? It’s definitely something worth asking. 



To learn more about how HMS can conduct behavioral science-based health outreach and rapid communications campaigns to help your patients and members navigate the complexities of COVID-19 and beyond, contact us today.

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