Feelings of ‘uncertainty’ and ‘isolation’ cause pandemic-related anxiety among youth


The stress, fear and grief brought by the coronavirus pandemic continue to weigh heavily on young people, creating far-ranging consequences on both their physical and mental well-being.

A discussion on mental health, titled “Stop Covid Deaths: Covid-19 and Mental Health of Youth,” hosted by the University of the Philippines Manila-National Telehealth Center and led by child psychiatry expert Dr. Cornelio Banaag Jr., points to feelings of “uncertainty” and “isolation” as key factors that contribute to the rise of mental health problems among adolescents.

“It’s normal that they feel these emotions given the substantial changes to their routines,” Banaag said. “The lack of daily structure, the feeling of aloneness can be challenging even to well-adjusted individuals.”

Add to this the change in young people’s experiences of loss, grief and bereavement. “When we lose a friend or family to Covid-19, we can’t even exercise the normal grieving process, another risk factor for depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder. There is so much complicated grief going around.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 10 to 20 percent of children and adolescents suffer from various forms of mental disorders, with most happening among young adults starting at age 14. The risk of suicide is highest in ages 15 to 24 years old.

“None of us realized we would deal with this difficult time. There is an invisible enemy that can only be seen in terms of morbidity and mortality numbers,” said Banaag.

Notice the warning signs

Drawing the line between expected behavior and signs of a mental problem is not an easy task, said Banaag.

“When does normal sadness become a depression? When does nervousness become an anxiety disorder and anger becomes manic range?”

Each illness has its own symptoms, but common signs of mental health problems include feeling sad or withdrawn, planning or trying to harm oneself or others, sudden overwhelming fear for no reason and severe, out-of-control behavior.

Changes in eating habits such as increased hunger or lack of appetite, difficulty perceiving reality and concentrating, frequent disobedience or aggression, crying for help on social media and multiple physical ailments without obvious causes are also some of the common symptoms of mental health conditions.

“Early intervention can help reduce the severity of an illness. It may even be possible to delay or prevent deeper mental health problems and suicide,” said Banaag.

First steps to get help

The first step to dealing with a mental health problem, according to Banaag, is recognizing its very existence.

He said that mental health screening a person suspected of having depression provides an accurate diagnosis, effective treatment and appropriate follow-up.

“There are certain measures that are designed not just for psychiatrists and psychologists, but also primary care workers to use on patients with depression, such as PHQ-9,” Banaag said.

The Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ) is a self-administered version of the PRIME-MD diagnostic instrument for common mental disorders. The PHQ-9 is the depression module, which scores each of the 9 DSM-IV criteria as “0” (not at all) to “3” (nearly every day).

It is worth noting, however, that PHQ-9 is not a screening tool for depression, but it is used to monitor the severity of depression and response to treatment.

Learning to cope

In managing stress and anxiety in the time of the pandemic, Banaag said that mental wellness begins with being kind to one’s body and mind.

“Find ways to move, sleep well and feed your body well,” he said. “It is normal to feel sad, to feel stressed, to feel anxious during times of crises. Do you realize that our mind produces at least 80,000 thoughts in any single day? We have no power to control those thoughts, but we have the power to react to those thoughts.”

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