BY Katherine Wong

The lock down, public panic, and the overload of information about the COVID-19 pandemic can feel like a lot right now. 

Yet for some reason, students across the world are expected to continue working and studying in a state of faux-ignorance while we worry about carrying the virus to our loved ones, wasting time, or growing apart. All of this can contribute to a sense of constant and unending anxiety that feels suffocating at best, and completely crushing at the worst.

So, I interviewed youth Dr. Hayley Watson, adolescent clinical psychologist and CEO of youth mental health on how we can cope and what we should do so we come out of this pandemic in a stable mental state.

A lot of young people have lost their jobs because of this virus, and with an upcoming recession, it seems they won't be seeing good employment prospects any time soon. What are some suggestions you can make for young people to cope in these trying times when all seems hopeless?

Economic uncertainty is a major contributor to the mental health risk factors affecting youth at this time, especially for young people who are typically employed in casual or part time roles in industries which are suffering right now like hospitality and retail. It’s really easy to get overwhelmed with the negatives of this situation, and focus on all the things we have lost. However, with every hardship comes a new opportunity for growth - often in ways that might not have been available to us otherwise. If we can pause and look for what we can GAIN during this time, this will change our experience of this crisis tremendously. Maybe the gains are personal, like spending more time with the people we care about. Snapchat Australia recently conducted a user survey to understand how young people are feeling, and 47% have said that spending quality time with friends and family is a positive outcome from this situation, so this shows that many people are already finding the upside in the midst of this upheaval. Or maybe the gains are that we get a chance to explore an entirely new career path that we never envisioned for ourselves. While many industries are disappearing, there are also tons of opportunities (particularly in the online space) that are growing rapidly. While we don’t want to minimise our struggle, when we find our own pathway forward and keep focused on that, the negative outcomes of this crisis impact us less, and we get a chance to find new sides of ourselves and new possibilities for our lives that can help us long into the future.

Digital media like Snapchat can often lead a lot of us to feel disconnected from the world and reality. How do you think the coronavirus has changed this perception, and do you think there's still a level of separation when using online communication platforms?

This is a great question. Does social media connect us or disconnect us? The answer is that it can do either, depending on how we use it. What I have seen in my work as a clinical psychologist specialising in adolescents, is that communication with close friends is crucial to improving mental health outcomes at this age. And at the moment, online communication is the only way young people can connect to their peers, so it’s important to take a close look at how these platforms can be used in a positive manner.

It’s important to recognise that not all online communication is created equal. Engaging in mindless scrolling, or buying into vanity metrics such as likes and shares often makes us feel lonely, disappointed, and rejected – and this can have negative impacts on youth mental health. However, if social media is used to reach out and authentically communicate with our friends, and share our own thoughts and feelings, this often makes us feel connected, joyful, and inspired. These experiences can have incredibly positive impacts on the overall wellbeing of young people. 

Many of the young people I work with are on social media platforms like Snapchat, and in my experience, when they use these platforms for peer-to-peer communication between close friends, this provides a similar bond to the types of close friendships that they cultivate in person.

If young people can reflect on how their online communication is making them FEEL, they can distinguish what aspects of social media are working for them and which parts are working against them. In this way, each young person can create the online environment that connects them rather than separates them.

Data from Snapchat reveals that young people are increasingly concerned about the pandemic with 66% of users expressing a desire to remain connected with close friends through the platform. Why are platforms like Snapchat so important for young people at the moment?

Snapchat promotes authenticity and encourages users to share their real life, and not the filtered version of it, to their close friends. Maintaining authentic communication via these networks can help establish a sense of community, support, and shared experience while reducing mental health risk factors.

We can use online platforms such as Snapchat to offer forgiveness, kindness, and hope to friends and family near and far. In doing so, young people can strengthen their own sense of purpose and meaning. By reaching out and connecting openly and honestly, I believe Gen Z has the potential to come out of this crisis with a profound sense of camaraderie and resilience that will serve them long into their future.

Though it can be mentally alleviating to switch off from the news and coronavirus-related information for a while, it can seem like we are just lulling ourselves into a sense of wilful ignorance. How can we balance our ability to stay informed with mental health if any and all news just stresses us out?

As we become increasingly connected as a society, news and information can constantly flood our feeds and phones. There are a few tactics we can use to minimise news-induced anxiety, while remaining informed and concerned citizens.

  1. Limit your consumption! Decide how much news works for YOU, and create a boundary for yourself so that you are only seeing new information at a rate that you feel comfortable with.

  2. One of the difficult aspects of the news right now is that it feels hopeless and out of control. One way we can shift our relationship to the news is to pick one cause that we care about and can DO something about, and get to work doing it! Is there a charity that you want to support, or a group of people that are hit especially hard by this crisis that you want to write about? When you can focus on targeting your news consumption towards topics that you are actively participating in, this has a completely different impact on how stressful the news feels.

  3. When you are watching the news, pay attention to how it makes you feel and what thoughts come up for you (eg. I often feel overwhelmed and start thinking about worst case scenarios). You can then use this as an opportunity to change your whole relationship to stress. Take some deep breaths, change your thinking by reminding yourself that ultimately all we really need to do is keep focusing on taking care of ourselves TODAY, and the rest will be what it will be, whether we stress about it or not. This shift is one that you can then use every time you feel anxious in any other area of your life, so the news can become a therapeutic exercise. If it’s going to cause us stress, we might as well make use of it!!

While young people do want to stay informed, sifting through the metric tonne of information available online can feel particularly overwhelming. How do you suggest we separate misinformation from legitimate news?

Sifting through misinformation is key at all times, but especially when we’re being told to drink disinfectant! More and more people are getting their news from social media sites, and while this ease of access to free information is amazing, young people need to use their critical thinking to decipher truth from fiction, and remember that most of these platforms do not filter out fake news! The best advice I can give is to look at as many sources as possible, and read up on every different angle of the same story if you truly want to get to the bottom of what is real and what is not real. Every news source will have it’s own bias because that is the nature of humans - we tell stories through the lens of our own experience. If you read multiple versions of the same story, pause and ask yourself - based on what I know about people and the world, what makes the most sense to ME? And then keep an open mind and be open to being proved wrong!

Isolation has brought on an intense feeling of stress that will only become more chronic as the quarantine continues. How should we help relieve chronic stress?

We want to stay connected with ourselves and with our support networks. Doing things that connect us to our own feelings like being creative, starting up a new hobby, or journalling about our experiences can help us find a positive path forward during this crisis. Self-soothing strategies like mindfulness practices, exercise, cooking, and baths are also a key way to calm the nervous system down and reduce the stress load we are under.

Maintaining contact with our close friend networks online can also have a significant positive impact in reducing the stress we are experiencing. Below are my top tips for the most helpful ways to stay connected to our support networks during these turbulent times:

TIPONE:Make a plan. Help eachother create self-care plans. This could include regular digital check-ins with your friends every day or week, just like you would do offline. Once these are created, use your friends to stay accountable and stick to your plans.

TIP TWO: Communicate openly. Regularly share how you feel with your close friends, but avoid mindlessly scrolling. Apps like Snapchat enable closed communication through small virtual networks that are similar to how we interact offline, mimicking our humanity digitally.

TIP THREE: Have fun. During stressful times, it's important to let off steam and have fun with your friends. There are loads of online games and technology like Filters and Bitmojis that help you take the seriousness out of the situation and be a bit silly, which alleviates the impacts of stress.

Seeking therapy for the stress brought on by quarantine can seem daunting, especially for those of us who have never attended therapy before. How does therapy work in the online space, and how should first-time patients seek help?

Online therapy works just the same as in-person therapy. Your sessions will be confidential, and your therapist will create a space where you can share your thoughts and feelings about anything you like, and work with you to find your path forward. In order to access a therapist, my advice would be to look up a few online - you can search for psychologists, clinical psychologists, therapists, or counselors. There are a range of different practitioners, with different credentials and different ways of practicing, so you want to choose the person that aligns with the way you want to be supported. You can reach out to a few and see which one you feel you can trust, and then try a first session and see how you like it. This is an incredibly useful tool if you are struggling, and I would also encourage everyone to seek therapy at some point in their lives whether they are in a crisis or not - it is such a powerful tool for figuring out how to build a life that really works for us, and expand to our fullest potential.

If you feel stressed, anxious, or just need someone to talk to in these tough times, feel free to call Lifeline at 13 11 14.

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