Post-COVID rise of mental health issues in young people

Thursday 29 September 2022

The long-lasting impact of school closures and lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic is continuing to affect Queensland youth, with a 40 per cent increase in patients being treated for anxiety and depression at Mater Hospital Brisbane’s Emotional Health Unit.

The unit, based at Mater South Brisbane campus, treats adolescents and young adults for conditions, including mood disorders, anxiety disorders, personality disorders, and substance use.

Clinicians say the disruption caused to young people’s lives by lockdowns, the loss of support networks and the cancellation of ‘rites of passage’ events have taken a psychological toll on a generation of young people.

Mater Emotional Health Unit Nurse Practitioner Chris Leary said the rise of working from home had also led to more parents identifying the signs of anxiety and depression in their children and seeking help.

While some patients are having to wait up to 18 months to see a psychiatrist, Nurse Practitioners like Mr Leary are able to see patients without a wait or referral.

“While sometimes the signs may not be so overt, symptoms could include changes in a child’s behaviour, a decrease in their level of functioning and normal happy-go-lucky self, spending more time in their room and not interacting, school avoidance or school refusal as well as changes around appetite and sleep,” Mr Leary said.

Mater Emotional Health Unit Nurse Unit Manager Shannan Halse said child and youth mental health problems, including anxiety and depression, had worsened due to COVID-19 school closures and cancelled sport events.

“It’s no surprise that school and university students who were being supported through mental health issues at our clinic prior to the pandemic are now back, and needing more support than ever,” Ms Halse said.

“Face-to-face medical appointments changed, as well as access to school counsellors on site. Quarantine and isolation measures removed people from their safe environment.

“All those rites of passage for a young person were ripped away – from graduation ceremonies, school formals and end-of-year Schoolies events.

 “When you think of the jobs a lot of young people have, it’s hospitality, which at one point came to a standstill due to the pandemic.”

Moreton Bay region real estate agent and mother-of-four, Chelsea Perry, said counselling and mental health support at Mater had eased the anxiety of her 12-year-old son Jacob, who has ADHD and is on the autism spectrum.

“The lockdowns really affected Jacob, and the rest of our family,” Ms Perry said.

“The loss of routine and not having contact with his school teachers meant he wasn’t able to cope and that really heightened his anxiety. He found home-schooling absolutely mind boggling.”

Ms Perry sought medical support for Jacob’s spiralling anxiety and depression as he became disconnected from friends and teachers.

A paediatrician referred her to Mater’s Emotional Health Unit and Ms Perry said she had seen a “big improvement” in Jacob’s mental health.

“Being able to get support during a crisis has been instrumental in Jacob’s wellbeing - Chris was able to speak to Jacob’s school and offer further options to support him,” she said.

“Jacob actually really looks forward to his consultations with Chris.”

Mater Young Adult and Mental Health Centre Senior Manager Greg McGahan said early intervention was where resources needed to be.

“A child’s mental health can be influenced by many things, like family circumstances, school life and life events,” Mr McGahan said.

“Early intervention leads to better outcomes for the patient and their families.”

With mental health a growing concern for young Australians, Mater Research is looking into new ways of identifying and developing next-generation strategies for treating and preventing disorders linked to chronic stress.

Mater Foundation Senior Research Fellow Dr Dhanisha Jhaveri’s research into mental health focuses on neurobiological changes that occur following chronic stress - a major risk factor for the development of anxiety and depression.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has posed a form of uncontrollable and prolonged stress for our younger generation,” said Dr Jhaveri, who leads the Neural Stem Cell Biology Research Group.

“We are investigating how stress impacts the neuroplasticity mechanism involving the birth of new neurons in pre-clinical models of the adolescent brain and how that affects the regulation of emotion and cognitive behaviour associated with psychiatric conditions.”

Dr Jhaveri’s group uses modern neuroscience tools including optogenetics to investigate the role of new neurons in mediating chronic stress-induced changes in mood-related behaviour in animal models.

“Our vision is that improved understanding at the molecular and cellular level using preclinical models will inform development of next-generation strategies for treating and preventing these disorders,” she said.

The Mater Emotional Health Unit at South Brisbane delivers dedicated, evidence based and consumer driven mental health care to young adults. For more information contact them on 07 3163 6102.