Young Aussie adults have suffered disproportionate mental illness during the Covid-19 pandemic due to a combination of employment, study and financial challenges specific to their transitional stage of life.
But access to ‘green infrastructure’ – leafy neighbourhoods and outdoor environments – as well as a fair amount of screen – which was typically regarded as unhealthy in the pre-Covid world – appear to help reduce stress and worry.
This is according to a new study from the University of Adelaide, which surveyed more than 1,000 young Australians and is published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.
The researchers found that the pandemic has been linked with widespread mental illness in a sample of young people aged 18-24 years.
Only 14 percent of young adults are ‘flourishing’
Lead researcher and PhD candidate, Tassia Oswald from the university’s School of Public Health, said the survey found only 14% of respondents were flourishing, reporting no mental illness alongside high levels of mental wellbeing.
“Young people in our sample who had secure employment, such as permanent positions, had the best mental health. Those in less secure employment, like casual workers, had the worst mental health. This is concerning for young people globally because they are more likely to be in precarious employment,” Oswald stated.
“We also found almost half were Struggling (with high mental illness alongside high levels of mental wellbeing), a quarter were Languishing (no mental illness alongside low levels of mental wellbeing), and 13% were Floundering (high mental illness alongside low levels of mental wellbeing),’’ she said.
Low mental wellbeing predicts mental illness
“Studies which only look at the presence or absence of mental illness, without considering indicators of mental wellbeing, completely miss the 25% of young people who were identified as Languishing in our study. While they didn’t report experiencing symptoms of mental illness, low levels of mental wellbeing are predictive of future mental illness, so they are an important group.”
She noted that, while other research has highlighted the mental health impacts of job loss during the pandemic, this latest study demonstrates the mental health risks of precarious employment.
“Young people in our sample who had secure employment, such as permanent positions, had the best mental health. Those in less secure employment, like casual workers, had the worst mental health. This is concerning for young people globally because they are more likely to be in precarious employment,” Oswald said.
Protective factors for mental health during the pandemic included living with family, being in secure employment, reporting no change in income or working hours, using technology to connect with family and friends during lockdown, increased contact with nature during lockdown, having access to an outdoor space at home, and living in a neighbourhood which is perceived to be highly green or natural.
Precarious employment is among the risk factors
Risk factors for poor mental health included living alone, being in precarious employment, changing income or working hours, decreasing screen time during lockdown or withdrawing from tech-communications, decreasing contact with nature during lockdown, not having access to an outdoor space at home, and living in a highly built neighbourhood.
Interestingly, while excessive screen time has repeatedly been linked with poorer mental health in a pre-Covid world, the survey showed increased screen time during the pandemic appears to reflect greater social engagement and connection which supports mental health, while decreases in screen time indicate a group who may have become withdrawn.
“This has important implications for public health messaging and community-based mental health services, which typically assume that people who are struggling can be reached via social media and media mental health campaigns,” Oswald said.