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China's COVID restrictions hurt the mental health of young people

  Image: Reuters Berita 24 English - Zhang Meng broke down in December of last year. The 20-year-old was crying on the stairs of her dorm be...

Image: Reuters

Berita 24 English - Zhang Meng broke down in December of last year. The 20-year-old was crying on the stairs of her dorm because COVID had locked down her Beijing university campus so many times that she felt hopeless.

Because of the lockdowns, she spent most of her time in her room and couldn't meet up with her friends. There were also strict rules about when she could go to the canteen or take a shower. Zhang said that the restrictions had "taken away the safety net that was holding me up, and I felt like my whole being was falling down." She said that she is someone who needs to talk to people in person.

She was told that she had major depression and anxiety that month.

Yao, who is also 20 and doesn't want his first name used, had his first breakdown when he was a boarder in high school and couldn't understand why lockdown rules were so strict. He said that he had to hide in a school bathroom because he was crying so hard that "it felt like my insides were crying."

Yao tried to kill himself when he was in college in Beijing in early 2021. He was depressed and upset that he hadn't taken the classes he wanted to because he didn't want to upset his father.

China has used some of the harshest and most frequent lockdowns in the world to stop every COVID outbreak. They say it saves lives and point to the fact that only about 5,200 people have died so far from the pandemic.

It shows no sign of giving up on this effort, but medical experts are worried about the policy's effect on mental health, and Zhang and Yao's experiences show that it is already having an effect.

A June editorial in the British medical journal the Lancet says, "China's lockdowns have had a huge human cost, with the shadow of mental illness hurting China's culture and economy for years to come."

Experts are especially worried about the mental health of teenagers and young adults, who are more vulnerable because of their age and lack of control over their lives. They also have to deal with much more pressure from school and the economy than previous generations.

There could be a very large number of young people who are affected. In 2020, the Education Ministry estimated that about 220 million Chinese children and teens had been locked up for long periods of time because of COVID rules. It didn't answer Reuters's request for a new number and comments on the subject.


Young people have been put in dangerous situations because of the COVID limits.

During the two-month lockdown in Shanghai this year, for example, some 15- to 18-year-olds had to stay alone in hotels because they couldn't go home.

Frank Feng, deputy principal at Lucton, an international school in Shanghai, told Reuters, "They had to cook for themselves and didn't have anyone to talk to, so it was very hard for them."

Even though there isn't a lot of information about how lockdowns and the pandemic affect the mental health of young people in China, what information there is isn't good.

A survey of 39,751 Chinese junior and senior high school students who were learning remotely during lockdowns in April 2020 and published in the U.S. journal Current Psychology in January found that about 20% of them have had suicidal thoughts. Suicidal ideation is when a person thinks that they would be better off dead, even if they don't have any plans to kill themselves at the time.

More generally, searches for "psychological counselling" on the Chinese search engine Baidu increased by more than three times in the first seven months of 2022 compared to the same time last year.

COVID lockdowns have happened to a lot of teenagers during years when they had important tests. Teachers say that, even if the shame of being infected wasn't enough, many families isolate themselves for months before life-changing exams to avoid getting COVID or, much more often, being thought of as a close contact.

The stress of school is made worse by the lack of good job opportunities. Overall unemployment is at 5.4%, but the rate for urban youth has risen to 19.9%, which is the highest level on record. This is because companies aren't hiring as many people because of the pandemic and new regulations on the tech and tutoring sectors.

Due to China's one-child policy from 1980 to 2015, most students are also only children. They know that they will have to help support their parents in the future.

This year, a survey by Fudan University of about 4,500 young people found that about 70% of them felt some level of anxiety.

People also think that the pandemic and lockdowns are making people less happy with the intense pressure to get ahead in life. This was shown by the "lying flat" movement in China last year, in which many young people embraced the idea of doing the bare minimum to get by.


The Education Ministry has taken a number of steps to improve students' mental health during the pandemic. These include making mental health classes mandatory in colleges and trying to increase the number of school counsellors, therapists, and psychiatrists in the country.

But China has only started to care about mental health in the last 20 years, and the ministry's efforts to put counsellors in schools are also fairly new. Last year, few schools would have had one. Its June 2021 guidelines say that there should be at least one counsellor for every 4,000 students across the country.

The subject has also been brought up in state media.

Lu Lin, president of Peking University's Sixth Hospital, was quoted in an article in the China Daily on June 6 about the effects of COVID restrictions on the mental health of teens and other vulnerable groups. The article was about how COVID could hurt people's mental health for more than 20 years.

He said that data from the beginning of 2020 showed that a third of people who lived alone at home had problems like depression, anxiety, and insomnia.

Lu thought that most people would get better after an outbreak ended, but that 10% would never be able to go back to normal. He said that some of his teenage patients had become addicted to video games, had trouble sleeping, stayed sad, and didn't want to go outside.

Zhang's view of the world has been completely shattered by lockdowns and the depression that followed. Once happy with her plans to study Chinese language and literature, she is now interested in studying abroad because of how lockdowns have been handled.

"When I graduated from high school, I felt very patriotic, but that feeling is slowly going away. It's not that I no longer trust the government; it's more that I feel like the smell of masks and hand sanitizer has seeped into my bones."

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