The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic that has swept the world in 2020 will leave deep scars across many aspects of life. The number of deaths as of August 2020 is 780,000+ globally, and the burden of the virus is affecting billions of people. Adversity is a well-established risk factor for short and long-term mental health problems. Unfortunately, adolescents and young people are an at-risk group, as most mental health conditions develop during this period of life.

As the pandemic continued to spread globally, we witnessed the shutting down of offices and programs of work, except for essential services.

Our team at citiesRISE decided to take a pulse on the well-being of our community, so we surveyed 1,083 participants across the globe – with 597 participants across our five operating cities. Most of the participants were between ages 18 to 24 and identified as female (65%). Of the total participants, 89 were from Bogotá (Colombia), 57 were from Chennai (India), 188 were from Nairobi (Kenya), and 337 were from the USA (Sacramento & Seattle).

We found that young people were anxious and concerned about the lack of COVID-19 information, but nonetheless were proactive about seeking support for their mental and physical health. While they acknowledged more support was required, they were also optimistic about the future.

You can view the full report here.

Key Findings

Young people around the world face a multitude of challenges. Responses from 31 countries showed that anxiety, fear, and uncertainty are common emotions experienced by young people during COVID-19. They prefer to seek help from family members and peers for mental health challenges. Importantly, young people are asking for more information on mental health in the context of social distancing and public shutdowns.

Here’s what the data revealed from our five focus cities: Bogotá, Chennai, Nairobi, Sacramento, and Seattle:

  • COVID-19 has impacted young people in many ways, but its affects are most acutely felt on a personal level compared to the other domains of finance, mental health, family and basic needs. Nairobi, Kenya respondents reported greater severity of COVID-19’s impact overall, while those in Chennai and Bogotá reported milder effects, compared to the cities surveyed.
  • Family and friends are the predominant sources of information across the five cities, favored by 60% of respondents. This was closely followed by social media, particularly Instagram and WhatsApp.
  • The vast majority of respondents, 88%, feel well informed about COVID-19, particularly those in Chennai and Sacramento. Notably, those who reported social media as their main information source felt significantly less well-informed.
  • Almost all respondents, 96%, are able to abide by social distancing measures and are doing so to preserve their mental and physical health. However, very few, only 7%, are talking to a mental health counsellor or therapist; Nairobi respondents were more likely to seek professional support than respondents in other cities.
  • Young people consistently seek information on stress reduction, relaxation and positive thinking to better support their mental health. Information on suicide prevention was generally not needed, although respondents in Nairobi indicated a small, but substantial need in this area.

Moving Forward for Youth-based Programming and Policy Makers

This survey has augmented our understanding of youth needs during the pandemic. We make recommendations on two levels: for youth-serving programs and services; and for policy makers. We recommend programs, services and policies reflect young people’s realities and behaviors, including how they seek information, the type of information they seek and how they prefer to receive support.

  • Priorities social media as a key communication channel to disseminate health messages, provide mental health and psychosocial support and engage with young people.
  • Develop tools and spaces for young people to be connected to other people and resources, ensuring these are virtual and further support connections between friends and family.
  • Empower young people to better support their peers with tools and resources.
  • Disseminate resources that help young people to cope with mental health challenges, specifically evidence-based resources on a range of coping mechanisms, specifically how to reduce stress, relax and think positively. This should include suicide prevention.
  • Provide clear, unambiguous public health COVID-19 messaging. This need is heightened by the dependence of young people on family and friends for news.
  • Strengthen proactive, focused public health messaging directed to young people ensuring it includes how to manage individual mental and physical health concerns, family stresses and financial instability.
  • Strengthen young people’s internet and social media literacy, specifically their ability to use these as a reliable information and news sources.

We should take a proactive approach to engaging young people directly. While not explicit from this survey, we know from our experience working with young people that it is important they have an active voice in co-designing solutions that address their immediate and long-term mental health concerns.