The Kusnacht Practice Podcast #014 Interview with Melissa Nobile, psychologist at The Kusnacht Practice, on the emerging mental health issues in young people

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“And now that it’s become a longer-term problem, this pandemic, we’re starting to actually look at how it’s impacting people, including the younger generation and it does feel like it’s a time bomb that’s emerging.” – Melissa Nobile, psychologist MSc.

“While the pandemic shows no signs of slowing down, the effects on our youth are becoming increasingly apparent.” In the latest podcast from The Kusnacht Practice, we are talking with Melissa Nobile – psychologist MSc – about the exponential rise in mental health issues affecting young people.

Together, they discuss the rapid escalation in the demand for mental health assistance that has led to services being overwhelmed and rendered ineffective. The absence of counsellors and reduced mental health support in schools, and the behavioural changes and subtle clues that indicate that someone is struggling.

Presenter: Hello. We are here today with Melissa Nobile. Melissa is a psychologist, Operation Coordinator and Project Manager here at The Kusnacht Practice. Good morning Melissa.

Melissa Nobile: Good morning.

Presenter: We’re here today talking about the mental health crisis facing young people in the wake of COVID-19. Thank you for bringing your knowledge on that matter.

The UK universities have been encouraged to allow students to return home to see their loved ones amid fears that local mental health services cannot cope. This comes as the National Union of Students called for urgent action to address students after exceptionally high dropout rates and numerous cases of suicide at the education institutions during the pandemic. Melissa, how serious is the mental health toll on university students as the pandemic continues? And why is it particularly at this age group.

MN: So from what we’re seeing currently, and what’s being reported, pretty much worldwide in countries most affected by the pandemic, it seems to be, for now at least, pretty serious. You have to imagine at that age, because you asked about why university students, it’s an age, usually, when you’re experiencing independence for the first time. You’re going to, maybe, start living alone or living on campus. In this case, especially in the UK, the US, and some cultures where there’s such a huge component associated with going to university.

And then you have this pandemic that shuts down that whole system and that whole tradition for a lot of people. And so it’s not difficult for me to imagine how, of course, this, plus isolation, plus not being able, perhaps, to travel and see the loved ones. And loads of different factors why it would be a challenging time for them and difficult to cope with.

Presenter: Particularly not being able to attend the courses at university, for instance, having to go and work solely through computers and webinars is creating more complexities isn’t it?

MN: More complexity. And it takes away from the experience of being with your peers in a group, and the excitement of everything that sometimes goes on, on campus. And to work alone from home, you also have to be able to have a certain independence and ability to organise yourself in a way that you will show up for classes, which is not easy for everybody. We’re all different, and for some it’s just more difficult than for others.

Presenter: And so what should loved ones do to help ease these mental strains? And what signs should they be looking for? Particularly the schools or the universities and then obviously, the beloved ones, when they look at the population of young people in facing COVID-19 situations?

MN: It can be quite easy for young people to hide what’s going on for them, or for everybody, actually. But what you would notice as a sign is something that just diverges from what you would usually observe in that person that you know.

Someone who usually answers his texts quite quickly and likes to phone you and suddenly isn’t picking up the phone so much. Or someone, if it’s one of your friends in class, that’s not showing up for class anymore. It can be weight gain, it can be weight loss, it can be someone who’s expressing feelings that ‘oh, this is really difficult for me,’ feelings of hopelessness, for example.

So it can be pretty much anything you can think of that in your experience of being around that person is just different from the person you’d usually know. That would be the signs that can be so different from one person to the other. And if you do see that, it’s good to ask the question and check on that person and ask them if they’re okay.

Presenter: The COVID-19 situation is a huge dilemma for families, isn’t it? Should they be bringing their kids back home rather than leaving them in university residences, where the virus has been rapidly spreading? I can imagine the kind of stress that those families are under, don’t you?

MN: It’s a difficult decision to make because there’s no textbook telling you okay, in this situation, I think my child should come home or they should stay in the dorm and on the university campus or wherever they are. And there’s no right or wrong decision.

I think each family has to make the decision that feels most right for them, based on their own individual situation. If you have a family member that’s more at risk, well, it might be best that we don’t bring another person, for example, in the setting. There’s no one answer fits all. And I’d encourage people to tune in to what feels right for them based on observations and maybe a list of pros and cons that they can do.

Presenter: So we do have a lot of guidelines in that respect for the parents that we were working with on those kinds of topics overcoming COVID-19, we have some guidelines that we can actually go along and implement.

Similarly, according to the youth charity Young Minds, 69% of school students describe their mental health as poor since they have been back in education. And that has risen from 58%, who described their mental health as poor before returning to school. How alarming are these figures? And what do they indicate, in your opinion?

MN: That’s really interesting. So that there would be an increase in the mental health difficulties, although they’re back in school, if I understand well. Well, the first thing I can say is we don’t know for a fact, It’s not because these numbers are reported that they indicate that it has anything to do with being in school versus not being in school, it could simply be the timeframe at which the questions are asked where we’re further in the pandemic and therefore, there’s other consequences.

I’m not exactly sure when these numbers were reported, but in all cases, whether it’s 58, or I think you said 69%, it remains alarming numbers, because that’s more than one out of two children, if you take the time to let that sink in, that’s having a difficult time.

Presenter: Actually, it’s more like two out of three.

MN: Two out of three, if we really let that sink in, that’s significant.

Presenter: Two in three feeling that bad coming back to school is obviously very worrying. Absolutely. And then still in those numbers, which are very interesting, going through 40% of respondents said that there was no school counsellor available to support students in their own school, can you imagine?

These figures are worrying and really emphasise the importance of family in helping ease the effect of the pandemic on their children. Thinking there’s no psychologist or no help in the schools that they’ve been in is quite unthinkable. So what kind of methods should family members employ then if they’ve got to substitute themselves to that kind of lacking psychology support?

MN: It depends if your child is struggling or not. So if everything’s going well, it’s business as usual, and you don’t particularly need to substitute yourself or worry about it too much. It’s if you’re seeing that your child is having a difficult time, and you can’t access a resource of support in school, well then, I’d encourage you to seek professional support outside. It can be just one consultation, just to get a bit of direction and maybe get a few keys and skills on how you can support your child.

Presenter: And almost a quarter of the respondents, 23%, so it’s almost one in four, say that there was less mental health support in their school than before the pandemic. It’s really why only 9% agreed that there was more mental health support. So what should schools and colleges be doing to address the mental health of their students, in your opinion?

MN: There’s a lot of things schools could do. I think, one thing that, as a psychologist I would find helpful to get out there is encourage direction in the school. To educate, perhaps teachers, on why this is a difficult time for children and teenagers, and to start building that understanding around, ‘okay, what is the normal developmental process that adolescents go through?’

I know I talked a little bit in the past, and why it makes sense that they’re facing challenges, and it can start building that empathy. But it can also give a view, a framework and a way of positioning them when faced with a 15 year old that’s no longer coming to class and dropped out. And to start thinking, okay, what could be going on for them and how can we help them better? That would be the first step.

And it can also be, I know of one school actually that opened two, I think they did two weekly groups for students where they could just come and talk about what they’re currently experiencing with this pandemic and how they’re struggling. And they get support from different teachers who are just also happy to be there for support and it creates a sense of community, and it makes it okay to talk about these things. These could be a few things that schools can do.

Presenter: Indeed. Separate research from The Prince’s Trust found that more than a quarter of young people felt unable to cope with life amid the pandemic and almost a third have panic attacks. More than one in three young people say they struggle to think clearly. All these figures indicate that there is a potential mental health time bomb emerging among a generation of young people, does it not? And how worrying is that?

MN: It’s worrying. If we look at the timeline of this pandemic, during the first wave we were all hopeful that by the summer things would more or less go back to normal for our youth. And then there was the summer break, and we were trying to not think too much of what would happen next, and just see what happens when it actually happens.

And now we’re in the second wave, third wave in some countries, we’re seeing more and more that, yes, services, in hospitals and clinics, in outpatient settings that treat young, below 25 year olds, let’s say, and children, they’re seeing a huge increase in the demand. And we’re in the midst of being able to put in place loads of different services that are going to be able to support our younger generation.

And where, in the first wave it appeared to me anyway, when I was reading the media, the news coverage, we weren’t thinking too much about the mental health in general of people. We were in the crisis, doing the emergency thing to get by. And now that it’s become a longer term problem, this pandemic, we’re starting to actually look at how it’s impacting people, including the younger generation and it does feel like it’s a time bomb that’s emerging.

Presenter: Thank you, Melissa. I was here today with Melissa Nobile, she’s a psychologist, Operation Coordinator and Project Manager here at The Kusnacht Practice. Thank you very much Melissa.

MN: Thank you very much for your time.