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The relationship between economic health and mental health is inextricably linked and, internationally, previous economic downturns and crises have been linked to growing mental health problems and spikes in suicide rates

Those hit hardest by Covid-19 are not the ones you might expect – By Shae Ronald

With construction and infrastructure sites cranking back up to full capacity following the return to Level 2, it would be easy to assume that the worst is behind them for most workers in the sector.

Thanks to the Government’s focus on shovel-ready infrastructure projects, tradies are unlikely to be short of work – and that’s good news for the thousands of apprentices and young Kiwis working across the sector, from builders and engineers to sparkies and plumbers.

Sadly, however, the truth is New Zealand’s more than six weeks of Level 4 and Level 3 restrictions have taken a huge mental toll on young Kiwis – and it’s a situation that is unlikely to improve as quickly as it set in.

The International Labour Organisation warns young people will be among those hit hardest by Covid-19. The relationship between economic health and mental health is inextricably linked and, internationally, previous economic downturns and crises have been linked to growing mental health problems and spikes in suicide rates.

In the EU, every 1% increase in unemployment was associated with a 0.8% rise in suicides for people under 65 years. However, for younger populations, every 1% increase in unemployment was associated with a 2% rise in suicides.

Hiding their struggles

Youthline has been helping young New Zealanders for over 49 years. Experience and research tells us that many young people go out of their way to hide their struggles – often with serious consequences.

This is potentially more of an issue in more male-dominated physical careers such as the trades, where signs of ‘weakness’ or an inability to cope may traditionally have been met by derision and a ‘harden up mate’ response from co-workers and employers.

A Youthline study during Level 4 revealed many young people were dealing with feelings of fear, anxiety and grief. The survey, which compared attitudes towards Covid-19 during the lockdown period among Kiwis of different ages, found people under 25 years old were more likely than those older than 25 to say lockdown had had a negative impact on their life.

Overall, young people were more likely than older adults to report that their need for social connections and emotional support were not being met during lockdown.

When the survey was released, as New Zealand settled into its first week at Level 3, Youthline was experiencing a 50% increase in the number of texts from young people contacting our Helpline for support. The most common topics raised by callers were about suicide, depression, anxiety and self-harm.

The warning signs

It is vital that the voices of our young people are heard because the reduced social connection and peer friendships experienced during lockdown add to significant mental health issues already facing our rangatahi.

Employers can – and must – do everything they can to keep their employees safe. In this post-lockdown world, that includes looking out for the warning signs of young people under duress.

Physical signs of depression can include not wanting to eat or over-eating, being constantly tired, tearfulness, over-sleeping or trouble sleeping, restlessness or moving slower than usual, withdrawing from friends and family, and large weight gain or loss.

But the key for employers and whanau is to engage and be aware of any changes in the young people around them, and to talk to them about it in a supportive and non-judgemental way. It’s important to normalise that it’s natural to feel low during a time like this when our situation has completely changed from our ‘normal way of life’.

A collaborative process

We can support our young people by validating the way they feel and helping them to focus on what they can control and what they can do. It’s important to acknowledge as employers and whanau that one thing they cannot control is experiencing depression, and their feelings are not just something that is going to go away because someone tells them to ‘get over it’ or ‘harden up’.

It’s hugely important that a young person’s voice is heard, and they are not just told what to do, especially in situations like this, because it could make them feel even more like they have no control.

Youthline can talk through with employers a plan of what can help support their employees when they are feeling like this, and give them space to share their ideas so that it’s a collaborative process.

Speaking of support, Youthline could do with your support as well right now. Since Covid-19 we’re projecting a $300,000 shortfall in our Helpline funding, at a time when we’re seeing an ongoing spike in calls and texts.

To find out more information about the services Youthline provides, visit youthline.co.nz, to donate visit youthline.co.nz/donate or givealittle.co.nz/cause/youthline-helpline-support. To donate $3, text YL to 5144.

Shae Ronald is the chief executive of Youthline, recognised as ‘the number one organisation for youth to reach out to for help’ with 25% of young people and their friends contacting them for support (Colmar Brunton 2019)

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