This morning, as Bill and I were waking up to another day of COVID-19 life, I read a couple of articles in The New York Times about the plight of today’s youth. The first article was about how the United States might hope to reopen schools soon and why it’s so necessary for the mental and emotional well-being of young people. The second was about the youth of Europe and how many of them are becoming despondent because of the toll the pandemic is taking on their budding lives. In both articles, mental health issues were cited as major reasons why young people are suffering so much right now.
Both articles hit home for me, even though COVID-19 was not on the radar when I was young. I remember my teens and twenties as an especially difficult time for me. I suffered significantly from anxiety and depression during those years, mainly because I wasn’t sure what my place in the world was. I didn’t have tons of friends or boyfriends, so those years weren’t especially fun for me in terms of a social life. I did have some fun, mind you, and compared to a lot of people, I was fairly privileged. But I wasn’t doing what most young people do when they’re young. I worried excessively about the future and dwelled a lot on the past. It all kind of came to a head when I was in my mid twenties. I had a crisis and felt compelled to seek psychiatric help. I remember wondering back then what the point of living was.
Remembering what I was like in those days and how anxious and hopeless I felt, even if I did appear to be resilient, I think about what it must be like for the young people of 2021. These young folks have been raised in very anxious times. For most of their youths, they’ve had to worry about violence in the form of school shootings and foreign and domestic terrorism. Today’s twenty year olds were born around the time of 9/11, which is when the world really seemed to change a lot. They grew up hearing about people being kidnapped and beheaded in faraway lands. Maybe some of them saw their parents go off to war, never to come home again. All the while, the cost of living kept rising.
From the very beginning of this COVID-19 crisis, I’ve had a soft spot for the young. This should be the time when they’re allowed to be free… to explore relationships, try new things, travel, make life altering decisions. They should be enjoying school, dating, learning to drive, starting their first jobs, taking field trips… But thanks to the pandemic, along with the chaos that comes from having incompetent and criminal world leaders like Donald Trump, those normal milestones are being curtailed or delayed for most of them.
In my day, if young people couldn’t find a job in a field they enjoyed, there was always restaurant work. Waiting tables is a great skill– one that’s usually portable and plentiful. But thanks to COVID-19, a lot of restaurant and retail work has been sharply curtailed. And while some young people might be glad for the extra free time, bills still have to be paid. Some of these young folks are halfway to earning college degrees that they may or may not ever get to use or be able to pay for. In the case of the article about the European young people, a lot of them were saying they didn’t see the point of continuing their educations, given the lack of jobs. Many of them report feeling suicidal, and those who have mental health issues are having worse problems. Some of those who were mentally healthy are developing depression, anxiety, and eating disorders, and mental health experts are hard pressed to be able to help them. Inpatient beds in psychiatric wards in European hospitals are full.
I think about athletes who have been preparing years for the 2020 Olympics. The Summer Games were postponed until this year, and now it looks like they could even be canceled. I think about someone like Simone Biles, who is a great gymnast who’s fighting the same enemy of all great gymnasts… time. She’s in her early 20s. This is when a lot of female gymnasts retire because their bodies don’t cooperate as well as they used to. She was hoping for another Olympic bid, but may not get her chance if the pandemic doesn’t come under control soon.
I think about young ballerinas who have trained their whole lives to be great dancers. But the pandemic forced live entertainment to shut down. What do they do now? The same goes for budding musicians and actors who have spent their whole young lives preparing for a reality that, at least for now, has radically changed. The virus has made it a lot harder for young people to do things like date. This morning, I read a truly nauseating comment on an article about how caution has become “sexy”. Someone said they think masks are “turn ons” because it means a person who is wearing one isn’t a sociopath and cares about others. But face masks cover up the face, which takes away a significant conduit for non-verbal communication. The masks are further isolating and a visible reminder of how fucked up things are today.
For the record, I don’t agree with the idea that a person who doesn’t want to wear a mask might be a sociopath. Mask wearing isn’t normal. It’s not comfortable or convenient. It makes perfect sense to me that many people don’t want to wear them. Not wanting to wear masks doesn’t necessarily make people sociopathic, and while the articles about this phenomenon go into more detail as to why some vehement anti-maskers may have sociopathic tendencies, a lot of people never read beyond the headlines. While I can see the idea that a person who flat out refuses to wear a mask could be considered a sociopath if he or she has other sociopathic traits, I don’t think that’s always true. I think it’s a mistake to promote the idea that anyone who wears a mask is “caring”. That’s also not necessarily true. It could be that they simply don’t want to be fined or harassed. Likewise, I don’t think that all anti-maskers are necessarily people who are uncaring and sociopathic. Some of them are, but not all.
Then there are the mean spirited comments by people who feel the need to shame and lecture young people who are complaining about these unusual and unpleasant conditions we’re living in right now. Frankly, I think anyone who can’t see how difficult this situation is for the young should have an empathy check. It’s true that generations before us have had to deal with terrible adversities. And they dealt with the adversities without the benefit of the technology that we have today. But times were different in those days. The people of the past had some things that we don’t have. I don’t think, for instance, that there was as much pressure to perform or achieve. A person could get by with less. People had closer connections with each other, and there was more of an emphasis on family.
When you’ve grown up in a hyperactive society like ours, where both parents work just to keep the lights on and you’ve been taught since birth that you have to achieve to get into college or find a job– and then all of that is taken away because of a virus– it can be very difficult to cope. It can make anyone wonder what the point is. Especially when, in those other times of adversity, people could literally lean on each other for support. Now, they have to do it on a Zoom call because being in close contact with others is a no no. Humans were meant to touch each other. It’s a need that most of us have. But right now, it’s forbidden, and that’s causing people some real angst.
I understand it, although I wasn’t living in pandemic conditions when I was in my 20s. I felt like I was trying to do so much to make it in the world. I made some good choices that led me to where I am, but I was also very lucky. I have been feeling kind of depressed and hopeless lately, but I also realize that I’m lucky to be dealing with this now, instead of back then… I would have absolutely HATED being locked down with my parents. And even given the fact that I was pretty reclusive when I was single and I relied on my jobs for human interaction, I think I would have HATED dealing with lockdown in my 20s. I was always worried about making ends meet in those days. I think it would be even harder now.
Count me among those who feel great compassion for the young. I think they should get more priority in the vaccination drive. And I am one of those who isn’t going to tell them to “suck it up and drive on”. I don’t think that’s a particularly good or helpful comment in most situations. It often comes from a place of privilege and a lack of empathy for others. Dare I say it? The hyper anal, mask-wearing, middle-aged person who shames a young person for feeling sad and hopeless is probably more of a sociopath than they realize. Personally, I think we should make more of an effort to help the young get back into life. My husband’s daughter is a young mother of two. She and her husband need to be healthy because they have small children to support. The 21 year old college student should be given a chance to launch– to finish their education and get to work. Those of us who have already had a chance should be more mindful of how hard this is for the young.
Once again… I feel kind of grateful to be childless.