Zoomers and the looming, lagging epidemic of mental health issues

Post contributed by Laura Pakendorf

The alarming gap between the demand and supply of mental health services existed long before the Covid-19 pandemic – and continues to pose a significant threat to the mental resilience of adolescents and young adults. The age of onset for most mental illnesses is adolescence or early adulthood – and with this in mind, the psychosocial impact that pandemic had on the Generation Z group of people, combined with the supply and demand gap for accessible mental health services within South Africa, contributed greatly to the growing epidemic of mental health issues we currently see in Gen Z’ers.

Restrictions on social mobility – due to full or partial lockdowns – and disrupted schooling meant that many adolescents were deprived of the ability to engage as freely as before with support networks such as extended family or teachers. And in addition to the disruption of normal routine that this age group experienced during this time, statistics showed that the occurrence of Gender Based Violence and domestic violence escalated too. So not only were these adolescents isolated, but many of them were not physically or emotionally safe in the space they previously had the freedom to escape from. In fact, the World Health Organization reported that in the first year of the pandemic, the global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by a massive 25%.

The severity of the impact of the psychosocial factors such as social isolation, school closures and lockdowns, deaths of relatives, economic instability, and uncertainty about the future is now being observed by mental health practitioners as the adolescents and young adults struggle to adapt and reintegrate to their everyday life.  Increased sense of anxiety, poor social interaction ability, separation anxiety and poor attention and focus, and decreased sense of resilience are common signs seen in therapeutic practice post-pandemic, in both school-going individuals and university students. Additionally, for many the economic impact of the pandemic played a significant role in many family units as children have had to move schools, stop schooling completely or were no longer afforded the opportunity to pursue tertiary education because of decreased available funds within the family unit.

For those children with mental health conditions before the pandemic, their ability to obtain needed follow-up treatment such as medications or therapy was hindered due to disruptions in mental health services throughout the pandemic. Without adequate health professional support, these children and adolescents were forced to cope with conditions such as anxiety, loneliness, depression, and substance-use disorders in isolation. All these conditions are known to be exacerbated if not treated professionally and the pandemic deprived them of this right. The greatest fear is that; should the mental health epidemic that we currently see in GenZ not be handled correctly, not only is a reduced quality of life during adulthood is projected but the mental illness linked mortality rate (through means of suicide) of this group of individuals will increase dramatically, and many professionals are unsure whether the health care system in South Africa is equipped to handle that problem.

The true magnitude of the lagging mental health epidemic that our society is entering means that health professionals no longer have the luxury of acting preventatively in these instances, only reactively. The ratio of mental health care users to mental health care professionals is not adequate to get ahead of this issue and we are already starting to see the toll this is taking on our mental health care system – including burnout of practitioners, and long waiting lists for facilities and private practices.

Do you need help discovering your map and your compass for your life?

The teams at Evexia are ready to help you.

Simply complete the form and we’ll get in touch.