Woman’s unlikely post-lockdown reaction
Back in January, Laura was about to start her first year of work in public relations after completing her studies and was excited about what life had in store for her.
But these days, the 22-year-old struggles to be on a bus without panicking, has been forced to return to working from home and battles a near-constant state of intense anxiety and dread.
Coronavirus has sparked a mental health crisis for the young Sydney woman, who was diagnosed with severe anxiety and stress as a result of the pandemic.
"I was a bit on edge in the first bit of COVID, when we were in lockdown, but then things eased and I started going back to the office, and things really dipped," said Laura, who asked her surname be withheld.
"I felt safe in lockdown. Going back out into the world was a struggle. I have these intense bursts of anxiety. I wake up in a panic. I feel overwhelmed and exhausted all the time."
Catastrophic scenarios that play out in her head don't feel unrealistic or impossible in these strange and uncertain times.
"I've never experienced this before - I haven't had an issue with anxiety in the past and I'd never seen a psychologist until now," Laura said.
She's not alone - experts tell news.com.au that younger women are seeking mental health support in larger numbers than their male counterparts, as well as older age groups.
Juliet Reiner from Heads and Hearts Psychology in Sydney, works with young patients from children to young adults, and has seen a spike in referrals for anxiety and depression recently.
"There has been a higher percentage of females referred to my practice since May," Ms Reiner said. "Many young people are struggling to readjust to life."
Julie Mounter from All Minds Psychology in Melbourne agreed, saying "demand has gone through the roof" and young women are over-represented.
"I've had more younger females booking in than normal, so women in their 20s," said Ms Mounter, who works with patients aged over 18.
"Most of the young women I'm seeing are still employed, so they're secure in their work, but it's the other elements that are really impacting their mental health.
"Social connections are a huge proactive factor for mental health and wellbeing, and people don't have access to that at the moment.
"People are spending more time in, they're able to exercise less, work might be insecure and the world just generally is very uncertain and scary."
Insurance provider Bupa said data on customer claims since the coronavirus crisis began showed psychology was the most-used telehealth item for people aged 20 to 29.
"Telehealth makes mental health services more accessible for Australians, almost half of whom will experience a mental health disorder at some time in their life," Bupa managing director Emily Amos said.
For Laura, anxiety about COVID-19 has spread into fear about other parts of life and squashed her once-bright view of the future, she said.
"I'm pretty organised and like to plan out my life and I've mapped out where I want to be," she said. "My future feels very scary now and I don't really see anything optimistic.
"These are meant to be my pivotal years. I've just started working, I had aspirations of living abroad, I had trips planned this year."
RELATED: Sam Newman's 'shameful' protest plan
Severe uncertainty about what the future holds is a likely reason why females in the teenage bracket are also struggling, on top of elements vital to their wellbeing - social connections, routine and rites of passage - disappearing.
Donna Pendergast, Dean of Griffith University's School of Educational and Professional Studies, and Sarah Prestridge, a senior lecturer, recently conducted interviews with a group of Grade 12 students.
Among the blunt summaries of how female teens feel about how the year has panned out were "it really sucks", "disadvantaged", "super overwhelmed and uncertain".
One female respondent said she felt "nervous about the future" and remarked on there being "a lot of chaos in the world, which is pretty overwhelming".
RELATED: Vaccine success but there's a catch
The researchers noted: "Because this is their year, they must make it the best it can be. But for some the resolve is wearing thin. Almost all the students in our survey expressed a sense of loss about their school year."
Senior year milestones, rites of passage and life opportunities - from formals to university tours and more - have been lost.
"It really sucks that we have already missed out on events throughout the school and we are uncertain for how long this will last," one female told researchers.
Disruptions to studies and exam preparation are also taking a toll, with one female respondent saying: "I think the biggest worry/uncertainty is if universities are going to be a bit more flexible with our cohort."
Social distancing and remote learning have impacted social networks, with respondents lamenting reduced interaction with friends and peers.
Skye Tasker is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Culture and Society at Western Sydney University, whose research pre-COVID focused on the digital health practices of young people.
When the pandemic hit, Ms Tasker pivoted to examine trends in the context of coronavirus, and extensively interviewed a cohort of case studies aged 12 to 24.
"There are unique aspects of mental health that need to be considered," she said.
"Social connections are critically important. It's obviously important for all age brackets but I think it's especially so in that period of life where you're forming your identity, especially 12 to 16."
Teenagers who live at home are also not just managing their own changes in routine, but also adapting to those of parents and siblings, Ms Tasker said.
Older participants - those post-school, in tertiary study or in the workforce - are coping with more significant impacts to employment.
"I did my first range of interviews in May just as Sydney was coming out of the intense lockdown," Ms Tasker explained.
"A lot of the data collecting during that phase shows a sense of 'this is happening right now but we'll go back to normal' whereas my current interviews indicate things have changed.
"As time goes on and as we learn more about coronavirus, it's affecting how we see the future. The interviews over the past few weeks are more about managing the long-term impacts. I feel the mood has changed - very much so."
Kieran Palmer is a psychologist with the Ted Noffs Foundation, the largest provider of youth treatment services in Australia, and fears a wave of mental health issues after COVID-19.
Trauma caused by prolonged isolation and uncertainty or fear about the future is already taking a toll, Mr Palmer said.
"Trauma is essentially finding yourself in a situation where you can't do what you would normally do to manage, where you can't see a way out, and you are often left feeling helpless," Mr Palmer said.
"We are currently in the midst of such a traumatic situation. Our external world has become completely unpredictable, frightening, dangerous, and no one can guarantee a way forward."
Such trauma often leads to drug and alcohol abuse, and youth services and rehabilitation must be ready for growing demand, he said.
"I've spent years working with young people with serious drug and alcohol dependency born from the kind of trauma they are experiencing now," he said.
Data shows alcohol sales have increased since the initial lockdown and Mr Palmer suspects illicit drug sales and use have followed a similar trajectory.
At a time when the external world is "totally out of control", people must take greater care of their internal worlds, Mr Palmer said.
"Structuring our days and staying connected to loved ones are key.
"We need to move, daily, and with purpose. The more we sit still on the couch, the more our stress hormones build up.
"Activities like yoga and exercise are vital in allowing trauma to move through our bodies."
For those struggling, Ms Mounter said it's normal to feel overwhelmed or anxious about things, given how unprecedented the situation is.
"Even though we think we're highly evolved, we're wired to respond to threat and at the moment, the threat feels constant.
"Insecure work, losing your job, having your social connections cut off, people stuck at home, physical exercise is harder - it's extremely challenging things that people are trying to cope with.
"There's really solid research about the importance of people getting help sooner rather than later. It's important to get in early rather than leave things go too long."
Originally published as Woman's unlikely post-lockdown reaction