Recently, I’ve been seeing younger people manifest more stress and anxiety through physical medical symptoms ranging from gastrointestinal to autoimmune problems. I’ve had a few 17-18 year olds just finishing high school or their first year of college that have had gastrointestinal problems get much worse recently being sheltered at home with online schooling, missing out on graduation activities and celebrations, uncertain about the coming fall or the rest of the year. Others have had flares of inflammatory bowel disease or other autoimmune disease the past 3 months.
This most recent spike in COVID-19 cases have come from infections of more people in the teens and 20s. Public officials have emphasized how these young people need to be more compliant with masks, social distancing, and frequent hand washing. They are being told it is help protect the elderly that are more vulnerable to the virus. Many of these people fear social isolation and the stress and damage to their mental health more than the virus.
To be fair, there are studies showing the increases in the participation of young people in bars, parties, and other social gatherings without masks contributed to the increasing cases in the Southern and Western states but without adequate contact tracing, strong leadership guidance on the county, state, and federal levels, and compliance with the set standards for reopening the spread of the virus may have been inevitable anyway.
There are health risks and a mental cost to young adults forced to live a socially distanced life apart from their peers. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that nearly half of people between 18 and 29 report feeling symptoms of anxiety of depression. That’s twice the rate for their parents, and three times higher than their grandparents. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people under 35.
People have argued that Zoom, Google Meet, and FaceTime allow for socialization with the young people already familiar with the technology better than previous generations. The problem is that there is no substitute for physical hugs and physical proximity allowing close viewing of expressions or release of human pheromones.
Younger people realize the risks for the virus but they also calculate instinctively how depressing it is for them not be able to socialize with close contact. Eight percent of American teens attempt suicide each year. They have had to deal with school shootings and climate change which previous generations have not been able to protect them or offer concrete solutions. They now have been asked to help “protect” the previous generations most vulnerable to the complications of COVID-19 and their mixed feelings are understandable.
Younger people also need socialization for development. Young brains need social connection to feel secure about their identity and place in the world. They instinctively seek out other familiar human beings in time of stress and they have spent most of their waking hours with their peers in school or work. Shelter in place and social distancing have removed this security blanket. Older adults have had more time to develop social networks with spouses, co-workers, and others that they have had relationships for decades.
There needs to be an awareness of these mental costs to the social distancing of young people. Many of the signs of depression or anxiety can be seen physically and health care providers need to address the root causes of seemingly physical diseases. Chronic conditions such as inflammatory bowel disease and autoimmune disease can also be made worse by stress, depression, and anxiety which need to be addressed.
The spread of COVID-19 varies from region to region, state to state, and county by county. School districts that can meet reopening guidelines are trying to reopen in the fall. While it is important for their social development, there needs to be protections in place to avoid further spread of the virus including strict contact tracing which is currently not adequate. Every new case needs to be aggressively traced and people tested and quarantined to avoid further spread. A unified policy also needs to come from federal, state, and county officials with a standardized approach and guidelines which can be followed by regional, state, and county based on the specific local statistical demographics. Singling out a specific group or activity that is currently promoting the spread of the virus is not a strategy that will ultimately contain the spread of the virus.
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