Ireland’s teenage pariahs: ‘We are really at breaking point now’

Leaving Cert student Aoife Devlin. Photograph: James Connolly
"We have missed out on quite a few rites of passage", Jennifer O'Connell talks to Irish teenagers about the impact Covid-19 has had on them

“As a teenager, sometimes it feels like you don’t have a voice,” according to Róisín Dunne. “I’m really struggling in school and so are my friends,” she wrote, in a letter sent to The Irish Times during the most recent lockdown. “It feels like we can’t be kids anymore…I feel like we’re living in constant fear.”

Róisín, who is 13 and in second year at a boarding school in Leinster, decided to write the letter, she says, because “I think we’re all feeling the same way and we’re too scared to say it. I think teenagers are good at hiding their feelings.”

Restrictions like masks and socialising in pods have made the return to school an isolating experience for many teenagers, she thinks. She worries that she might transmit Covid-19 to an older family member when she goes home at the weekend, and is vigilant about social distancing, “but you have to think about people’s mental health as well, because that can be just as dangerous”.

She wants schools to put in place supports such as counselling to help students navigate this weird, socially distant world. “If they did group counselling or something, and one person just said how they feel, everyone might start opening up.”

Away from the outrage about teenagers throwing house parties, this is the reality of life during the pandemic for many young people. It has robbed them of milestones and rites of passage: birthday parties, summer trips away, first jobs, nights out, the debs, the Leaving Certificate and now the college experience.

It has made socialising difficult, even at school, where their interactions with one another are curtailed by two-metre rules and masks. It has forced them into spending more time at home with their families when everything in their psyche is pushing them to be more independent.

Some are taking it in their stride. But for many, it has been a challenging time.

“It’s been completely surreal, and not a good way. We are really at a breaking point now. We’re all trying our best,” says 17-year-old Aoife Devlin from Sligo, who is in sixth year.

“We have missed out on quite a few rites of passage. There’s the exam pressure, the lack of team sports – I play Gaelic, and that’s gone. And then to have that constant narrative that it’s us that is the problem, that’s really, really hard. We need to have some kind of positive in our lives, because not having anything to look forward to is what’s causing the damage.”

When countries around the globe embarked on lockdowns to try to flatten the curve of Covid-19 in March, there was no way of calculating the long-term effects on anyone – particularly on the youngest citizens whose lives and education were put on hold to curtail the spread of a virus that has predominantly affected those much older.

Now, international data is beginning to emerge to show that the burden on young people’s mental health and their overall sense of wellbeing has been significant.

One of the earliest studies was carried out among 1,100 students in Hubei province between February and March this year, and recently published in JAMA Pediatrics. Over one in five students had symptoms of depression; 19 per cent had anxiety.

The UK Household Longitudinal Study, involving over 17,000 participants, found one in four 16- to 25-year-olds had “significant levels of mental distress”. A study in Australia by Unicef found that the proportion of 13- to 17-year-olds “coping well” with life collapsed from 81 per cent to 45 per cent between January and April.

The impact on Irish teens specifically is only beginning to emerge

Research carried out across Europe by Eurofound in April found that 55 per cent of young adults were at risk of depression.

“In terms of life satisfaction, young people have always performed better than the other age cohort,” says Dr Massimiliano Mascherini, head of the social policy unit at Eurofound. “With the pandemic, this changed. We saw a surge that was unprecedented in the number of young people who were depressed, felt lonely or were tense. Young people scored less well than older age cohorts. They had a lower life satisfaction and a higher level of depression, higher level of perceived tensions, as well as a lower level of resilience. This was really a surprise.”

Research by the CSO published in July captured the same phenomenon: one in three young adults felt downhearted or depressed “at least some of the time”.

The impact on Irish teens specifically is only beginning to emerge. The numbers of young people referred to Jigsaw’s services for face-to-face counselling rose 47 per cent in July on the same month last year, and 46 per cent in August. The highest number of referrals was in the 15- to 17-year-old age cohort.

“Family problems became one of the top five presenting issues,” featuring in 8 per cent of referrals, says Jen Trzeciak, an occupational therapist and eMental Health clinical manager with Jigsaw. “Anxiety and low mood would be very common; relationship issues; we have young people who are struggling with sleep a lot.” Thoughts of self-harm accounted for 7 per cent.

Leaving Cert student Aoife Devlin at her home in Ballinful, Co Sligo. Photograph: James Connolly
Leaving Cert student Aoife Devlin at her home in Ballinful, Co Sligo. Photograph: James Connolly

The organisation is now offering phone, video and face-to-face appointments. “What we’re hearing a lot right now is young people in college who are really feeling they’re missing out; they’re struggling with loneliness and isolation and with routine. We keep hearing, ‘I’m not getting the real college experience’.”

For younger teens, the main issues are around “struggling with getting back into the routine; struggling with motivation. We’re hearing: ‘I’m worried there’s something wrong with me, or something underlying going on’,” she says.

Feeling anxious and demotivated is “completely understandable”, she stresses, and not in itself a cause for concern. “Anxiety is a natural response in uncertain situations.”

“Everyone just keeps saying, ‘you’ve loads of time to study’,” says Aoife. But it’s hard, she says, when she has nothing to do but study. “Now, with the dark evenings, I can’t get out for a run when I come home from school. I just feel like it’s going to affect us in the long run, in terms of motivation and everything.”

Her entire summer plans last year were wiped out by Covid – a trip to Spain to see a friend, a sailing instructor’s course, a family holiday. Now she’s worried about whether the Leaving Cert will go ahead; whether every assessment she does will end up counting towards a predicted grade; and whether her chance of getting the third level place she wants will be impacted by competition from deferring students from the class of 2019.

She has a relative who is vulnerable to infection, so like Róisín Dunne, she has been completely compliant with the guidelines, but she notices a change in the classroom environment.

“When teachers ask us to work in groups, our desks are one metre apart and we’re wearing masks. And then the teacher is looking at us going, ‘why are you not working in groups?’ We can’t shout across the room. I feel particularly sorry for first years. How do you make friends with someone through a mask?”

For all of us, the need to engage with one another “is a reflex; it’s a muscle memory”, says Ian Power of Spunout.ie. Young people could find it “quite difficult after all of this is over to try to re-establish the normal way to connect. For children and young people, this is all very strange. And we need to be guiding them through this and giving them practical tools on how to cope.”

Not all teenagers are struggling, he says. “But we need to think about those who are maybe slightly more vulnerable and maybe slightly less fine.”

He agrees with Róisín’s view that “it’s about everybody having that conversation so you’re not placing the burden on those that are finding it most difficult to start the conversation”.

The Irish Youth Foundation (IYF) has been tracking the mood of a cohort of up to 150 teenagers who interact with the services it funds, through a tracker run by Amárach. The results among this smaller group make for a sobering snapshot. In the latest report, published in November, 93 per cent are missing their friends and 81 per cent are missing family; 59 per cent say their mental health is their biggest issue, and one in three has found the second lockdown harder.

The Covid-19 pandemic has not been a great leveller for teenagers any more than it has for other age groups, and those in marginalised communities are suffering most

The data makes it clear that the return to school has not been a panacea. In July, 39 per cent in the IYF study were experiencing social isolation. “Now they’re back in school, and 61 per cent are isolated,” says Lucy Masterson, chief executive of IYF.

“They’re ticking the box in terms of going into the class, sitting in your pod at lunch, but we’re talking about young people who don’t always have somewhere to go after school and don’t always have mum or dad to help with homework. A lot of the after-school services are shut down.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has not been a great leveller for teenagers any more than it has for other age groups, and those in marginalised communities are suffering most.

Declan Keenan is a youth worker who runs Just Ask After School Klub in Dublin’s northwest inner city. “For our teenagers, their support system would be often outside the family. They’re struggling because those support systems can’t get to them as easily. You’re still able to do a one-hour group session with four people in a room, but they’ve got to wear a mask, they’ve got to be socially distant. There’s an impersonality in it. You can’t get to the same level with them.”

He’s worried that young people may be falling through the cracks. “In the inner city, you’d have a lot of grandparents looking after children, where the parent is out of the picture. We’ve had young people who, right throughout the summer, wouldn’t come out on trips, wouldn’t mix, wouldn’t interact. They sit upstairs on their PlayStation.”

That’s an immediate red flag, Keenan says. Normally, “we’d be straight in on top of that. We’d be in the home, sitting down with the family, with the young person.”

But now, it’s much harder to have those conversations virtually. “You raise the issue with them, and they go, ‘I’m grand, just leave it’. They’re coming from a community where it’s not acceptable to show weakness, or to show emotions. So it’s very hard for them to say, ‘I’m afraid for my grandmother’.”

Some of these children are at risk of dropping out entirely. “The difficulty for inner city kids is if they drop out, the chances of them getting involved in something that’s really dangerous for them is much higher than if you live in the suburbs. The fall for these kids is so much further.”

The relentless shaming of teenagers during the pandemic doesn’t help. “The highlight example is the Oliver Bond, ” he says, referring to a rave that took place in the complex in September and was widely covered in the media and online.

“I’ve seen party after party after party put up on Facebook by adults. But there was one notorious party by young people and everyone – including older people in the same complex who’d been out partying the week before – was going ‘Oh, this is terrible. This is absolutely disgraceful’.” In reality, he says, “the house party thing is an older cohort”.

Masterson is worried about the hidden impacts on teenagers of this year of restrictions and missing out. “I just really feel that young people are being swept aside. Our real worry in IYF is that they’re going to be the invisible generation.”

Aside from the social and mental health impacts, there are long-term economic and political implications, Eurofound’s Mascherini believes. If young people miss out on key stages in the development of life and social skills, that “may leave scars that involve the entire generation; a generation which is the future of Ireland and of European Union.

Teenagers may have been treated like pariahs at times this year, but of all age cohorts they have paid an extraordinarily high price

“Is it the case that we’re going to have a lower skilled workforce for a generation? What will happen to them in terms of labour market participation? And what would be the implication from a social perspective, and from a political perspective? Will be they satisfied with democracy?”

Though Eurofound research shows young people in Ireland feel more positive about their finances than those in other European countries thanks to pandemic supports, more funding is needed for youth services as we emerge from it, says Masterson. Fundraising opportunities have virtually disappeared, and while the IYF recently got €500,000 from the Generation Pandemic fund to support charities and organisations, this will only meet 6.6 per cent of €7.5 million in application requests.

Ongoing research, such as that currently being carried out by Jigsaw, IYF, Eurofound and others, is also needed, suggests Trzeciak. “I think the pandemic has taken a toll. We need to be careful around how we frame it. We don’t want to predict something and for the young people who are doing well to go, ‘What’s wrong with me? Maybe I’m not doing so well’.”

Adam Lambe, a Leaving Cert student from Monaghan town who’s had a positive experience during Covid . Photograph: Philip Fitzpatrick
Adam Lambe, a Leaving Cert student from Monaghan town who’s had a positive experience during Covid . Photograph: Philip Fitzpatrick

Adam Lambe, who is in sixth year at a school in Monaghan, is one of the lucky ones. He had a relatively good pandemic. He is involved with Irish Second Level Students Union, Spunout.ie, the European Youth Parliament and a number of other voluntary organisations and so, as meetings migrated online during the first lockdown, so did his social life.

He has embraced being part of Generation Zoom, and came through 2020 having made new friends. He celebrates his 18th birthday today and will be doing it from his home in Monaghan over Zoom. “I made loads of friends from all over the world who were having the same experiences I was – stuck in their homes, and looking to meet new people.”

Though he has managed to keep socially active throughout the year, he has seen some of his friends struggle, and thinks we shouldn’t be too quick to stereotype teenagers. “Friends would have found it very difficult and would have needed for their own sanity and mental health to meet up with one another. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have been in a good place. It’s very frustrating to see us all being stereotyped and put in the same box.”

Teenagers may have been treated like pariahs at times this year, but of all age cohorts they have paid an extraordinarily high price. It’s a kick in the teeth, says Aoife, “when the media is telling me that I’m not trying, when I’m trying so hard. I just genuinely feel everyone’s trying. There’s 120 in my year, and there’s no one having any parties.”

Support services

Jigsaw offers a listening ear, gives advice and mental health support to help young people aged 12–25. Find out more at jigsaw.ie. Spunout.ie offers information on a range of topics for young people and a list of support services at spunout.ie/help