‘I felt like my insides were crying’: China’s COVID restrictions are hitting young people’s mental health

HONG KONG, Aug 30 (Reuters) – Zhang Meng had a meltdown last December. The 20-year-old found herself sobbing on the stairs of her dormitory, driven to despair by repeated COVID-related lockdowns on her university campus in Beijing.

The lockdown meant she was mostly confined to her room and unable to meet friends. There were also strict restrictions on when she could go to the canteen or take a shower. Describing himself as someone who craves personal social interaction, Zhang said the restrictions “removed the safety net that was holding me up and I felt like my whole being was falling.”

That month she was diagnosed with severe depression and anxiety.

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Yao, also 20, who asked that his first name not be used, had his first meltdown in high school, where he was a boarder, unable to understand why blocking policies were so difficult. He said he had to take refuge in a school toilet one day, crying so hard that “I felt like my insides were crying”.

In early 2021, while at Peking University, unable to shake this depression and also unhappy that he had not taken the courses he wanted for fear of upsetting his father, Yao attempted suicide.

China has used some of the harshest and most frequent lockdown measures in the world in its determination to stamp out any outbreak of COVID, claiming it saves lives and pointing to its low pandemic death toll of around 5,200 to date.

It’s an effort that has shown no sign of letting up, but the policy’s impact on mental health worries medical experts, and as Zhang and Yao’s experience has shown, it’s already taking its toll.

“China’s lockdowns have a huge human cost with the shadow of mental ill-health adversely affecting China’s culture and economy for years to come,” said a June editorial in the British medical journal Lancet.

In particular, experts fear for the mental health of teenagers and young adults, more vulnerable because of their age and lack of control over their lives, and who must contend with far greater educational stress and economic pressure than earlier generations.

The number of young people affected is potentially huge. About 220 million Chinese children and youth have been locked up for extended periods due to the COVID restrictions, the Ministry of Education estimated in 2020. It did not respond to a Reuters request for an updated figure and comment on the topic.

CHILDREN UNDER PRESSURE

The curbs of COVID sometimes forced young people into extreme situations.

During Shanghai’s draconian two-month lockdown this year, for example, some 15- to 18-year-olds had to isolate themselves in hotels because they were not allowed to return home.

“They had to cook by themselves and they didn’t have people to talk to, so it was actually very difficult for them,” Frank Feng, vice principal of Lucton, an international school in Shanghai, told Reuters.

Although data examining the mental health of China’s youth and the impact of lockdowns and the pandemic are scarce, what is there is grim.

About 20 percent of Chinese junior high and high school students studying remotely during the lockdown have had suicidal ideation, according to a survey of 39,751 students conducted in April 2020, which was published in the US journal Current Psychology in January. Suicidal ideation is sometimes described as when a person thinks they would be better off dead, even though the person may not currently have suicidal thoughts.

More broadly, among age groups, searches for “psychological counseling” on China’s Baidu search engine more than tripled in the first seven months of 2022 compared to the same period a year earlier.

For many teenagers, the lockdowns due to COVID occurred during critical exam years. If the stigma of being infected isn’t enough, the desperation to avoid missing a life-changing exam due to contracting COVID or, far more often, due to close contact is causing many families to isolate themselves for months before exam periods, teachers said.

Exacerbating this academic pressure is poor job prospects. While overall unemployment stood at 5.4%, the rate for urban youth jumped to 19.9%, the highest level on record, as corporate hiring slowed due to the pandemic and regulatory crackdowns in the tech and tutoring sectors.

Most students are also only children due to China’s one-child policy from 1980-2015, and are aware that they will have to help support their parents in the future.

According to a Fudan University survey of about 4,500 young people this year, about 70 percent expressed varying degrees of anxiety.

The pandemic and lockdowns are also believed to be fueling discontent with the intense pressure to get ahead in life, symbolized by the so-called “recumbent” movement, which gained huge traction on social media in China last year as many young people embraced the idea of ​​doing the bare minimum to get by.

TWO DECADES LIKE THIS?

For its part, the Ministry of Education has launched a range of measures to improve the mental health of students during the pandemic, including the introduction of mandatory mental health classes in colleges and a push to increase the number of school counselors, therapists and psychiatrists in the country.

But mental health has gained attention in China only in the past 20 years, and the ministry’s efforts to install counselors in schools are relatively new. Most schools wouldn’t have had one last year. The guidelines, released in June 2021, call for a ratio of at least 1 counselor per 4,000 students nationwide.

State media also picked up on the issue.

A June 6 article in China Daily, which focused on the mental health impact of the COVID lockdown on vulnerable groups, including teenagers, quoted Lu Lin, president of the Sixth Hospital of Peking University, as saying that “the impact of COVID on mental health of humans can last more than two decades”.

Data from early 2020 showed that a third of residents who isolated themselves at home had conditions such as depression, anxiety and insomnia, he said.

Lu estimated that most will recover after the outbreak subsides, but 10 percent will not be able to fully return to normal, noting that he has had teenage patients who developed gaming addictions, had trouble sleeping and were continued to drop out and were reluctant to go outdoors.

For Zhang, the lockdown and subsequent depression completely shattered her worldview. Once satisfied with her plans to study Chinese language and literature, frustration with how the lockdowns were managed sparked an interest in studying abroad.

“I was quite a patriot when I graduated from high school… that feeling is slowly disappearing. It’s not that I don’t trust the government anymore, it’s more that the smell of masks and disinfectant has seeped deep into my bones.”

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Reporting by Farah Master in Hong Kong and Xiaoyu Yin in Beijing; Additional reporting by Casey Hall in Shanghai and Kiki Lo in Hong Kong; Editing by Edwina Gibbs

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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