Six weeks ago, it came gradually and then suddenly. On the Monday, UK pupils were still going into school. Amid the faint but growing noise of pandemic, many were moving through the final rituals of childhood: revision, exams, the summer before the rest of your life. By the Friday, the seemingly inevitable was shown to have been disposable all along. “I was sent a text,” says Year 13 student Gloria. “‘You should stay home. There’s no school today.’ I wasn’t able to say goodbye to my friends.”
In the weeks since schools closed and the country went into lockdown, we’ve talked to hundreds of young people about how they are coping.
They’ve shared stories of worry, loss, and aimlessness. They’re a vulnerable group. According to the Mental Health Foundation, young people have been the group most susceptible to loneliness: 44 per cent of 16-24 year olds felt lonely in the first two weeks of lockdown.
Search for positivity
You’re still here, you’re still alive, things will pass. Worrying about what’s out of your hands, Opeyemi points out, won’t make a difference. Joseph agrees. “I’ve been keeping myself occupied, not trying to get myself wrapped up in all the noise about exams and coronavirus. What’s happening right now is out of my control.”
And acceptance, when it does come, can be empowering. “It is what it is and you’ve got work with what you’ve got,” says Oliver. “You’ve got to find solutions.” The rituals of society – school, university, work – can be unforgiving. A break from them could be restorative, perhaps even life-defining. “From now until the day we retire,” says Wasim, “we won’t ever have this opportunity to sit at home and do the things we want to do, learn about the things we actually care about.”
Find what works for you
It is natural to seek out tested routines. How are others working? How are others staying in shape? How are others keeping up with their friends? How are others coping?
It can be discombobulating to see the profound next to the banal: those posting tributes to lost loved ones set against updates from those for whom, as Matt d’Ancona wrote last week, lockdown feels like a “surreal sabbatical”. But it can be a reminder that everyone is experiencing lockdown differently.
“For some people this is the time to take action and do the things we want to do,” says Krisi Uzunova. “But some people are going through the worst time in their lives.” When everyone is experiencing their own lockdown, you can’t take too many of your cues from other people.
“I have friends who share their daily work routines on Instagram,” says Isla, “and post that they’re working from 10am to 6pm. But it’s been important to figure what I want to do to make myself feel good, rather than just following someone else’s set guidance.”
Carve out different spaces
For most of us the different spaces with which we segment our lives have collapsed into one: the home. If you are lucky enough to have the room, try to keep different spaces for different things. Work in your bedroom, relax in the garden. Stop everything blurring into one.
If you don’t have the room, try to carve out spaces by other means. “I have been doing home workouts,” says Isabelle DiPietro. “[It] helps my transition into my school work.” Phoebe Hanson also uses exercise to move between spaces. “It’s so difficult to differentiate between work mode and relax mode, and exercise is so helpful to shift between them.”
Sometimes all it takes is the segmentation of a routine. The lack of direction since schools have closed has been tough for many young people. “I get stressed a lot these days,” says Siam Michael. “I really need to start focusing on a routine.” Isla seems to have the right approach. Every morning she writes in her journal what she wants to do over the course of the day, but she always leaves flexibility. We’re not all going to become automatons, moving seamlessly from work to exercise to relaxation, but some basic structure can help.
This doesn’t have to mean Yoga with Adriene or a daily Joe Wicks workout (although it can). Staying active means wrestling back some power from a pandemic which tries its best to deprive us of it.
Phoebe’s power is in her activism. She’s involved in the UK Student Climate Network and Fridays for Future, whose operations have moved online. “For me, motivation comes from being politically active,” she says. “Because I feel so powerless, and everything I do is being dictated to me at the moment, having the autonomy to be politically active and work with other young people to express what would be best for us after this pandemic helps me keep going.”
Other young people are finding power in learning new skills, taking care of their body, or simply maintaining relationships.
For the last of these, our collective shift towards online communication can have unexpected benefits. “My relationship with my dad has got better since the lockdown,” Taylor Evans says. “Normally I only see him once a week, but with FaceTime I talk to him nearly every day. It’s the same with my gran who’s on her own.”
Look out for each other
The lockdown is distorting all of our social interactions. It is even creating strange dynamics with people we are living with. Isla, in lockdown with her family, said: “Since we’re all working from home, it feels like we’re co-existing more than being a family at the moment.”
Crucially, at a stressful time, when people who are struggling might not be able to access key services, the lockdown is disrupting the informal support networks of friends and family. Young people who normally check up on each other in person are having to adapt. Reach out to your friends and try to think about the best ways to do so.
Taranpreet Kaur, who has friends with mental health problems, is thoughtful about the different ways of keeping up with them. “We usually use Skype,” she says, “because over text it’s easy for my friends to lie to me about how they feel.” Trying to replicate real-life interactions as best you can seems like a good starting point.
Whatever you do, don’t put pressure on yourself to come out of lockdown as if emerging from a chrysalis. Shakespeare wrote King Lear during his lockdown because he was a prolific playwright not because he had found some untapped creativity by shielding himself from plague.
It is fine to spend the lockdown just living simply, unburdened by the pressures of school and society. “I think it can be important to use this time to reflect on ourselves, improve our health,” says Hilai Qahari. “Don’t think what you’re going to do next. Just look after yourself, eat well, sleep well, and spend time with your family.”
Drawings by Zoë Barker