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'It felt like my insides were crying': China COVID-19 curbs hit youth mental health

'It felt like my insides were crying': China COVID-19 curbs hit youth mental health

FILE PHOTO: A hotline operator for a free counselling service answers a phone while wearing a face mask, as the country is hit by an outbreak of the novel coronavirus, in Shenyang, Liaoning province, China February 12, 2020. cnsphoto via REUTERS

FILE PHOTO: Workers in protective suits disinfect a classroom at a school to prepare for the resumption of classes following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Shanghai, China May 30, 2022. cnsphoto via REUTERS/File Photo


The COVID-19 curbs have sometimes forced young people into extreme situations.

During Shanghai's two-month lockdown this year, for instance, some 15 to 18-year-olds had to isolate by themselves at hotels as they were not allowed to return home.

"They had to cook for themselves and didn't have people to talk to so it was actually very hard for them," said Frank Feng, deputy principal at Lucton, an international school in Shanghai, told Reuters.

While data examining youth mental health in China and the impact of lockdowns and the pandemic is sparse, what there is is grim.

Around 20 per cent of Chinese junior and senior high school students learning remotely during lockdowns have experienced suicidal ideation, according to a survey of 39,751 pupils conducted in April 2020 that was published in the US journal Current Psychology in January. Suicidal ideation is sometimes described as when a person thinks they would be better off dead, though the person may not have at the time intent to commit suicide.

More broadly across age groups, searches for "psychological counselling" on Chinese search engine Baidu more than tripled in the first seven months of 2022 compared to the same period a year earlier.

For many teenagers, COVID-19 lockdowns have come during critical exam years. If the stigma of being infected is not enough, desperation to avoid missing a life-changing exam due to either catching COVID-19 or, much more commonly, being considered a close contact has many families isolating for months ahead of exam periods, teachers said.

Exacerbating that academic pressure are dismal job prospects. While overall unemployment stands at 5.4 per cent, the rate for urban youth has soared to 19.9 per cent, the highest level on record, as corporate hiring withers due to the pandemic and regulatory crackdowns on the tech and tutoring sectors.

Most students are also only children due to China's 1980-2015 one-child policy and are conscious they will have to help support their parents in the future.

According to a Fudan University survey of around 4,500 young people this year, about 70 per cent expressed varying degrees of anxiety.

The pandemic and lockdowns are also thought to be fuelling disaffection with the intense pressure to get ahead in life, symbolised by the so-called "lying flat" movement that last year gained huge social media traction in China as many young people embraced the idea of doing the bare minimum to get by.


For its part, the Education Ministry has launched a raft of measures to improve mental health for students during the pandemic, including the introduction of mandatory mental health classes at colleges and a drive to ramp up the country's number of school counsellors, therapists and psychiatrists.

But mental health has gained attention in China only in the last 20 years and the ministry's efforts to install counsellors in schools are relatively new. Most schools would not have had one last year. Guidelines it published in June 2021 call for a ratio of at least 1 counsellor per 4,000 students nationwide.

State media have also taken up the topic.

A Jun 6 article in the China Daily that focused on the mental health impact of COVID-19 curbs on vulnerable groups including teenagers quoted Lu Lin, president of Peking University's Sixth Hospital, as saying that COVID-19's "toll on people's mental health could last over two decades".

Data from early 2020 shows that a third of residents who isolated at home had experienced conditions such as depression, anxiety and insomnia, he said.

Lu estimated most would recover after an outbreak subsides but 10 per cent would be unable to completely return to normal, noting he had teenage patients who had developed gaming addiction, had trouble sleeping and continued to be downcast and reluctant to go outdoors.

For Zhang, lockdowns and her subsequent depression have completely shattered her worldview. Once satisfied with her plans to study Chinese language and literature, disillusionment with how lockdowns have been managed has sparked interest in studying abroad.

"I was quite patriotic when I graduated from high school ... this feeling is slowly disappearing. It's not that I don't trust the government anymore, it's more of a feeling that the smell of masks and sanitiser has penetrated deep into my bones."

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Source: Reuters/ec