COVID-19 and Young People
In this article we explore how the pandemic is affecting young people, in particular those who may already be marginalised or vulnerable.
Dr Paula Rodgers, Policy Coordinator at Include Youth highlights the resilience being shown by young people amidst the many challenges faced and how youth organisations are adapting and innovating to provide continued advocacy and support.
Tell us a little about your organisation and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on your work and key services at this time?
Include Youth is a rights-based charity working across NI and Donegal to improve the employability, personal and social development of young people in or leaving care, from disadvantaged communities or whose rights are not being met.
We work with up to 800 young people per year who are aged between 14-25 years. We provide a range of direct service programmes and influence public policy on a range of issues including youth justice and employability. All our work is underpinned by the voices and experiences of young people, evidence-based practice and international children’s rights standards. We have offices in Belfast, Armagh, Ballymena, Newtownards, Derry and Omagh. The young people we work with include those living in areas of social deprivation, with poor educational experiences, from a care background, with poor mental health, who have experienced or at risk of experiencing child sexual exploitation, who have contact with justice system, are at risk of paramilitary style assault or involvement and newcomer young people.
While are offices remain closed our work with young people continues. Staff are in constant contact with young people, offering both practical and emotional support and have found new ways to ensure our services are delivered. As Andy Armstrong, Include Youth’s Partnership Co-ordinator says:
‘’Despite the challenging circumstances, Include Youth’s work hasn’t stopped. We continue to work with and support a great number of young people across Northern Ireland and in parts of Donegal. Many young people have faced these challenges head on, and some require a lot of practical and emotional support; however, they have all shown tremendous resolve and perseverance as they attempt to navigate their individual pathways through this public health crisis. The young people are acutely aware of the key role they play in relation to public health and safety, and Include Youth is extremely proud of their commitment and the benefits of this for all society’’.
There is a full programme of activity in place for each of our offices and staff employability and personal development support continues online and by phone. Our cross border cross site activities continue online. Our tutors are keeping up essential skills lessons through google classrooms and staff have directly delivered learning resource packs to young people. Where possible spare laptops have been delivered to young people who had no means of online access. Numerous food parcels have been delivered to young people and staff are linking in with young people’s key workers and supporting families where possible. Our Virtual Drop Ins are making sure young people do not feel isolated. And there is plenty of fun as well with dance offs, quizzes, cooking classes and video making. Our Twitter feed Facebook and YouTube pages are full of photos, videos and details on how the Include Youth family are surviving lockdown life!
What are your main issues or concerns, in regard to the impact of the COVID 19 pandemic on the young people Include Youth works with and on behalf of?
Before the onset of the Covid 19 crisis, the young people we work with already faced an uphill battle in relation to the challenges they faced daily. Covid has only served to exacerbate those challenges and has required both our young people and our staff to dig deep and find the strength and resilience to keep going in the face of a new and unknown threat. Central to everything that Include Youth does is the belief that all young people have the right to be treated with dignity and respect, to have full access to education, care and protection and to have their voices heard and acted upon. Now more than ever we need to ensure that these fundamental rights are met for young people who pre-covid had already experienced disadvantage and unequal access to vital services and supports in areas such as mental health provision, education and employment opportunities, housing and financial stability.
Mental Health & Well-Being
The mental health and well being of our young people are a constant cause for concern at present. Many of the young people we work with have existing mental health issues. Some are registered to receive support from CAMHS and adult mental health services but with social distancing rules many of the appointments and assessments have been cancelled, moved online or happening via phone calls rather than being face to face. This new and sometimes reduced service could put our young people at risk and increase feelings of despair, loneliness and isolation. Using the phone to speak to an adult or professional can be a real obstacle to some young people, while others are uncomfortable about seeing their faces on online meetings such as zoom. While things can be difficult for those young people who are already registered with mental health services, we are especially worried about those young people who may be experiencing mental health problems but are not reaching out to get help.
While social media is proving to be a lifeline for so many of us at this time for some young people increased use of social media can present difficulties. Young people can see the advantage of using social media to stay in touch with others, but they also talk about being bombarded with negative messages and distressing images and content which can actually increase their anxiety and stress levels. Coupled with this is the need to reinforce the importance of staying safe while online and ensuring that young people are not at increased risk of exploitation or bullying.
We have heard much on the media about the disruption that has been caused by the closure of mainstream schools and the alternative arrangements being made for GCSE, AS and A levels exam assessment. We have had less coverage of the educational impact of lockdown on young people in alternative education provision or in employability support programmes like that offered by Include Youth. The educational future and aspirations of Include Youth young people are every bit as important as those of A level grammar school students. Our young people too have plans and dreams that they want to fulfil, and we cannot underestimate the impact the current crisis is having on learning. Include Youth tutors are continuing to deliver education daily across all our programmes and young people for the most part remain engaged. We have had to adapt and think fast on our feet to keep the level of learning at as high a standard as possible in these exceptional circumstances but we are determined that our young people will not be disadvantaged as they seek to advance educationally and achieve their future goals.
Digital poverty is proving to be a real barrier when it comes to making sure our young people are not disadvantaged in these days when technology is king. Having the right equipment and access to an internet connection is the key to opening the door on not just learning but socialisation. These are an absolute necessity if we are to narrow the digital divide, which was evident well before Covid but is more stark than ever now. We are doing everything we can to make sure young people have access to laptops, updated devices and an internet connection, so that they link in with their tutors and continue learning. This has not always been easy, and we have had to look to some of our existing funders to request support to provide our young people with the digital technology they require. We are also supporting the No-one Left Behind campaign by PPR calling on internet connection for all.
Care Experienced Young People
Many of the young people Include Youth works with are care experienced and these young people face particular challenges at this time. Disruption to family contact routine and additional pressures being put on already strained relationships can all add to the stress that young people are feeling. We are also aware that some young people are in the process of leaving the care system, something which can be daunting at the best of times, never mind at a time when the world already seems to be upside down. Getting used to new found independence, negotiating a new place to live, becoming accustomed to budgeting and getting by on scarce resources are all experiences care leavers go through but to do that at a time of lockdown is overwhelming and requires extended and additional support.
Overcoming Stigma and Stereotyping
At the early stages of lockdown, we became familiar with calls for young people to respect the regulations and social distancing rules. This resulted in our young people telling us that they felt they were being targeted as the main rule breakers when it came to the regulations. Young people are used to feeling stigmatised and seen as the source of problems rather that important contributors to society. In a sense the narrative around young people and their role in the Covid crisis served to reinforce these feelings of stigmatisation. But while a small minority of people, including those in the younger age category, may not be adhering to regulations the vast majority are playing their part in keeping their families, communities and society safe and well. And for that we thank them. We have examples of some of our young people going above and beyond to support their community, such as Charlotte who has been delivering newspapers to isolated and vulnerable people.
“As a young person, with extra time on my hands due to lockdown I wondered how I could help in the local community. As there are many people, especially those over 70 who can’t leave their homes, getting out to the local shops and getting the newspapers was something they would have done before COVID 19.I just thought it would be a nice idea to help out and make sure that they still get their newspapers. It will give them something to read at home and keep people up on the news.” Charlotte, Young participant, Include Youth
Young people need to be given credit for the part they are playing to get through this unprecedented time and it also needs to be acknowledged that the impact of the crisis will be felt for a long time by those in the younger population. The impact of Covid is not going to be felt equally across society. We know that those who were already suffering the most before the crisis will be impacted on in a harder and longer lasting way.
In light of these many issues, what are your key asks or questions for government and/or other senior decision makers at this time?
The UN Committee on the Rights of the Child have made a statement along with 11 recommendations on how they think governments need to respond to ensure that the impact of the pandemic on children and young people is addressed.  These include amongst others actions in relation to children and young people’s health, education, economic status, access to child protection services, the needs of young people in juvenile detention and in alternative care, ensuring accessible and child friendly information on Covid is available and taking young people’s views into account in decision making processed on the pandemic. On 5th May the Scottish Government produced a document setting out its actions in relation to each of the Committee’s 11 recommendations. We are calling on the NI Executive to follow the Scottish government and respond to each of the UN Committee recommendations, setting out a clear roadmap on how they will ensure children and young people’s rights are protected and realised now and in the months to come. Our Executive need to speak directly to children and young people and to reassure them that there is an action plan in place to mitigate as much as possible for the damage that the pandemic has done to young lives.
Huge thanks to Paula for taking the time to highlight the complex challenges facing Include Youths young people and staff at this time and how they are facing these head on with great positivity, and resilience.
Include Youth are members of NICVA's Public Affairs Forum. Via our Public Affairs Forum we continue to support community and voluntary organisations in amplifying their experiences and messaging to government and others at this time. This forum brings together those working in policy and public affairs across the voluntary and community sector to share information and insight and to discuss key issues in policy and policy development.
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