Life with COVID and Youth Wellness

At this point COVID-19 and its effects need no explanation. The pandemic has upended the economic and social norms of billions. In the fervor of a new lifestyle the impacts of the pandemic on individual groups have been overshadowed. One such group is youth. Broadly defined as those between ages 18-29, the burdens carried by youth during the pandemic are wide-ranging but revolve around deteriorating mental health due to social isolation. Over the month of July, the delegates and organizers of the Canada-Mexico Youth Lab reviewed these patterns and can recommend two bilateral policy prescriptions designed to curb their outcomes.

A recurring sub-topic relating to youth wellness during the COVID-19 pandemic frequently discussed by the Lab is the future of work. The unprecedented transition to fully or substantially online work as opposed to being in the physical workplace, as well as the abrupt transition to completely online schooling has given a glimpse of a potential future. Of course, the stringent restrictions necessitated by the pandemic will subside eventually, but the increased use of the internet to work or study from home is bound to stay to a degree. Unfortunately, the social isolation that comes with such a change will damage the mental health of Canadian and Mexican youth, as it did during the pandemic.

In the Fall of 2020, nearly a year into the outbreak of COVID-19, a Government of Canada survey found nearly 20% of those aged between 18-34 reported clinical symptoms of anxiety and 23% of the same group reported clinical symptoms of depression. This is in the broader context of over 50% of Canadians that characterized their mental health as “worsening” due to feelings of loneliness attributable to public health lockdown measures. Those young people with pre-existing mental health afflictions were particularly susceptible to depression and anxiety.

A similar deterioration in youth mental health is visible in Mexico. Mexican academics at the National Library of Medicine in the United States conduced a survey of 1230 Mexican citizens pertaining to anxiety, depression, and sleep quality because of pandemic-driven isolation. After peer-review, the study found that 79% of female respondents and 60% of male respondents said their sleep quality had decreased due to depression and anxiety-related symptoms. Out of these groups, youth ages 18-24 reported the most severe uptick in such symptoms, making up nearly a quarter of the affected respondents.

The state of youth mental health in Canada and Mexico during the COVID-19 pandemic is cause for immense concern and policy prescription, but it is not the end of the story. As discussed at multiple Lab sessions in July, specifically with guests from the COMEXI youth initiative and the Department of Justice of Canada, declining mental well-being has contributed to heightened substance abuse among youth in both countries.

Over 1 in 5 Canadians aged 18-34 revealed they had consumed more alcohol in the Fall of 2020 than in recent memory to cope with social isolation. Those who reported worsened anxiety or depression were 2.5x likelier to report “heavy” drinking or cannabis. The opioid crisis in Canadian cities like Toronto and Vancouver is perhaps the most sobering variant of this phenomenon. Illicit opioid overdose deaths increased by approximately 600 nationwide, which may not seem like much, but it was a nearly 40% jump, from January to April of 2020. Excess opioid deaths increased 70% from January 2020 to January 2021. Health Canada credits these increases to pandemic-induced stresses such as loneliness and anxiety over economic uncertainty, especially among those under 30 years old.

Mexican data on youth alcohol use is also startling in the context of state health restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic. A survey conducted by Mexico’s National Institute of Public Health in the Fall of 2020 found that only 12% of Mexican adults had begun consuming alcohol at higher rates. However, another survey backed by the United Nations discovered that nearly 40% of university students between 18-26 years old used alcohol “heavily” under the pandemic lockdowns as a coping mechanism for social isolation and anxiety over adapting to a new method of working. Data on Mexican drug use is varied but it is consensus among academics that the COVID-19 pandemic has bolstered the public reputation of drug cartels. In rural and impoverished areas where youth are suffering due to isolation or economic precarity, the cartels often provide food, water, building materials, and even illegal employment.

Youth wellness in Canada and Mexico throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has been and is an ongoing concern of immediate importance. As mentioned earlier, it is also crucial given the inevitable shift towards digital workplaces and schooling in the long-term future, as while it will be to a lesser degree, youth will still be more isolated than before the pandemic. Therefore, public policy prescriptions are needed to prevent and reduce the decline in youth mental health quality, as well as its results including substance abuse. To this end, the Canada-Mexico Youth Lab recommends additional bilateral cultural exchange and buffing the Anti-Crime Capacity Building Program.

The Lab has seen consistent interest in expanding cultural exchange between Mexican and Canadian youth. University exchanges exist but these are insufficient to reduce social isolation. However, the concept of the Canada-Mexico Youth Lab itself offers a prescription. The Lab offers educational webinars, social networking, and friendship building opportunities for its members to take advantage of. By harnessing the power of online platforms, especially with accompanying investment in telecoms, the Canadian and Mexican governments can establish a recreational version of the Youth Lab that incorporates thousands of youth. It could be organized on a sign-up basis and connect individuals with similar interests with the end goal of cultural exchange. A bilateral digital youth initiative could provide the socialization, peer-peer interaction, and support networks to reduce feelings of loneliness and aimlessness.

While addressing the root-cause of the mental health deterioration among Canadian and Mexican youth is paramount the Youth Lab also recommends stemming the flow of illicit opiates into Canadian cities and diminishing the appeal of the cartels in Mexico. This can be done with a buffed Anti-Crime Capacity Building Program. The ACCBP has facilitated the transfer of aid from Canada dedicated to improving policing capacity, border facilities, and community education in Latin America, with Mexico being a primary recipient. The initiative tackles cross-border smuggling and the mental health struggles that make illegal activity seem desirable or necessary. Doubling down on this program in terms of resources devoted and reorienting its approach to account for the isolation of the pandemic is advisable.

The Canada-Mexico Youth Lab is a microcosm of Canadian and Mexican youth, it represents the unique perspectives, passionate convictions, and particular struggles facing both countries’ young people. COVID-19 and its offshoots such as destabilized mental health and its resulting effect on substance abuse are of great concern to the Lab, given the disproportionate victimization of youth. With select key bilateral policies, such as youth socialization initiatives and an infused Anti-Crime Capacity Building Program, the social isolation brought on by the pandemic can be reduced and thus the aforementioned issues can be diluted. Further policies and campaigns will be needed as the economy and educational environments change going forward, but Canadian and Mexican youth are ready to lead in building their societies.