Youth and COVID-19 in the United States

By Stephanie Konadu-Acheampong

As COVID-19 continues to ravage the United States, youth are left with little support and have many tough decisions to make regarding work and school this coming fall semester.

Young adults in the United States are an incredibly diverse age group facing a myriad of challenges. As a result of COVID-19, many youth are facing new difficulties navigating their home lives, schooling options, job opportunities, as well as mental and physical health. I interviewed 11 youth (aged 18+) residing all across the United States to learn more about their experiences and how they have been coping with the pandemic these past few months.

It’s quite evident that the pandemic has had an immense impact on the physical and mental health of people living in the United States. At the time of writing, over 5 million US citizens have tested positive for COVID-19, and there are growing concerns about the potential mental health crisis the virus may leave in its wake. While none of the youth I interviewed have contracted COVID-19 themselves, two had close family members who had either contracted the virus or unfortunately passed away because of the virus.

The emotional effects from isolation and the stress of the pandemic cannot be understated, either. Of the 11 youth interviewed, eight are currently or have recently experienced symptoms of anxiety and/or depression, including insomnia, night terrors, panic attacks, persistent worrying and loss of motivation. Three have begun counselling since the pandemic hit. Some youth reported a strain on interpersonal relationships and difficult or dysfunctional family dynamics; for many of these students, this is the most extended time they’ve spent at home with their families since the end of high school. In addition to the pandemic, youth — especially black youth and youth of colour — are also dealing with the aftermath of George Floyd’s death without the support systems that they would otherwise have if they were on their college campuses or weren’t socially distanced from friends, family, and mentors.

The pandemic has also taken a tremendous toll on youth’s financial stability. As the number of positive cases in the United States skyrocketed through April and May, many college internships and summer jobs were cancelled and many more people were laid off. In other cases, due to loss of funding, jobs became volunteer positions and employee wages were reduced. One interviewee, a recent college graduate, was working a full-time job and was excited to begin graduate-level research during the summer. But as a result of the pandemic, he was laid off from his full-time job and received notice that summer research had been cancelled as well. Many other youth reported a complete or significant loss of income over the summer. One student, a second-year college student from the Midwest US, lost her summer internship. Internships, she remarked, “[are] my main income that I usually rely on throughout the year.” Without this source of income, many youth are quite worried that they may not be able to support themselves throughout the school year.

While some job opportunities were cancelled, other youth opted not to work for personal safety reasons. Still other students are working jobs that have been deemed essential. One such student works as a kitchen aid in a nursing home; another works as a barista. Neither are receiving hazard pay for their work and both reported feeling very stressed about their health and safety. Additionally, some youth are still paying rent on rooms they may not even be living in due to displacement or are paying rent despite not having a stable or sufficient income; one such student has had to almost completely empty out his savings to pay for rent. For some, the uncertainty continues into the fall semester; some work-study positions will no longer exist by the time school begins. All of these factors, plus the potential loss of parental income, leave youth in quite vulnerable positions.

As the Fall Semester approaches, many youth are weighing their options and trying to make the best decisions for their wellbeing, safety and success. Some colleges and universities across the United States have opted for a completely remote semester, but many have adopted hybrid systems allowing students to be housed in campus dorms and take courses with in-class components. Some youth are electing to stay home with their families, while others have chosen to make the journey back to their college campuses. While there is still a great deal of uncertainty that looms over the next year, some youth are hopeful that the pandemic will provide opportunities for rethinking and transforming American society as we know it today. One student from Iowa hopes that the inequalities the virus exposed will be addressed in the coming years. With the advent of widespread remote learning opportunities, a student from Connecticut voiced her hopes for a more accessible future for people of all abilities. And finally, many students expressed their hopes for re-allocations of funds and revisions to the US health care system.

 

Stephanie Konadu-Acheampong is a member of Child Helpline International’s #Youth advisory council.