Pandemic fatigue: young people and mental health

What does lockdown 2.0 mean for younger people and how does it impact on their mental health?

As we experience waves of rising COVID-19 cases, and feel the very real and immediate impacts of greater restrictions, how do we take care of ourselves, and each other as a society? Especially when we're not just in lockdown but we also have a generation locked out of opportunities?

This Sydney Ideas conversation explores pandemic fatigue and mental health with focus on young Australians and key findings from a new report by Australia's Mental Health Think Tank.

Hear from our panel of passionate mental health experts and leaders including:

  • Dr Marlee Bower, Research Fellow at the Matilda Centre, who brings insights to understanding social isolation and loneliness; 
  • Lucinda (Lucy) Brogden AM, Chair of National Mental Health Commission
  • University of Sydney Student Representative Council President and Arts/Law student Swapnik Sanagavarapu
  • Dr Pranita Shrestha, Research Associate in the School of Architecture, Design and Planning, who has expertise in housing affordability; and
  • Professor Maree Teesson AC, Director of the Matilda Centre, and Chair of Australia's Mental Health Think Tank, moderates the conversation.

We discuss the “shadow pandemic” of deteriorating health, impacts of social connection and disconnection, government interventions and directions for reform, as well as practical advice to cope with such challenging times. 

Watch the livestream

Listen to the podcast



Welcome to this Sydney Ideas event. My name is Fenella Kernebone, and I'm the Head of Programming for Sydney Ideas right here at the University of Sydney.

We really thank you for joining us for this really important and timely conversation, and we hope of course, here from Sydney Ideas and my team, that you guys are all doing really well. 

It's pandemic fatigue: young people and mental health. What does lockdown 2.0 look like for younger people and how does it impact on their mental health? 

Before we begin the proceedings, though, I would firstly like to acknowledge and pay respects to the traditional custodians on the lands on which we all live, meet, work and share ideas.

The University of Sydney is built on Gadigal land of the Eora Nation and it's upon their ancestral lands that the University of Sydney is located and as we share our knowledge, our teaching, our learning and our research practices within this University, may we also pay respect to the knowledge that is embedded forever within the Aboriginal custodianship of country. 

It's now my pleasure to introduce you to our moderator who is going to welcome her guests and it is Professor Maree Teesson. She is the Director of the Matilda Centre and the Chair of Australia's Mental Health Think Tank, and she is our moderator. Would you please welcome her, and thank you Maree, over to you. 


Thank you so much Fenella, and welcome everyone to Sydney Ideas conversation. I'm Maree Teesson and as Fenella said, I'm Director of Matilda Centre at the University of Sydney and I'm also Chair of Australia's Mental Health Think Tank. 

So, pandemic fatigue: we're all asking ourselves, will this never end? How do we cope? How do we live? How do we learn amongst the ongoing ongoingness? And that's the question that our panel today is going to work with us to address.

What are those impacts? What is that panic and what is that fatigue? And then what are some of the ways that we can know what some of the things that we can use to respond to that? So what are the impacts of the fear of the virus, the economic uncertainty and the isolation on our mental health?

Clearly, we must physically distance because that's the way to keep ourselves safe from this virus. But in that physical distancing, it is really impacting on our social connections and we are, when it comes down to it, social beings. We like to interact with each other, and that's critical to our health and mental health.

I'm very fortunate to chair the Mental Health Think Tank, and they recently reviewed the evidence and heard from over 2,000 Australians, and the four key findings were that Australia is facing a shadow pandemic of deteriorating mental health. So the feelings that we're experiencing around pandemic fatigue and the impacts of mental health are felt by many people.

And that's really important to acknowledge that the impact of the pandemic on mental health appears to have been disproportionately burdened on certain groups. And really, one of the groups where that burden has fallen is young people in this country. And yesterday, we saw data released showing increased self harm amongst young Australians. 

The third one was around demand on our already overstretched service system. So we really want people to reach out but we do know that our service system is really stretched in terms of its ability to respond to this intensified need. 

And finally, that our social connection really matters, that the importance of the social connection and the disconnection we're feeling around shaping mental health is becoming increasingly clear.

I'm really looking forward to the conversation today are from everyone online and from their panel, talking about these incredible important issues for our future. So delighted to bring the panel together. 

We have Marlee Bower, who is joining us from the Matilda Centre. 

We have Lucy Brogden, who is joining us as the Chair of the National Mental Health Commission. 

We have Pranita Shrestha and Pranita is joining us from the School of Architecture, Design and Planning at the University of Sydney. 

And we have Swapnik Sanagavarapu. Swapnik is from the Student Representative Council, and he's President of that Council and is currently studying Arts/Law at the University of Sydney, so thanks for joining us Swapnik. 

Can I just start by asking our panel, and if I could just start with Lucy, how is the panel feeling on managing through this time?


Maree, I think it's quite fascinating to see this lockdown 2.0 as it's called in Sydney or 5.0 if you're in Melbourne or 1.0 if you're in Orange. We're all at various stages of the lockdown and the pandemic process but the fatigue element is certainly very real.

We were just speaking anecdotally the other day that last time we locked down, we were all sharing funny videos of lockdown. We were showing our cooking and our baking and cleaning. Now we just couldn't be bothered. You know, we've really retreated and I think that's a real sign of the fatigue.

There's no fun in this one. It's a hard – it's a slog, and if we look at the data, it's telling us that people are finding it not just a slog, but something that's really causing distress, that we can talk about a bit more later. 


Thanks, Lucy. Swapnik, what's your take on it, and how are you feeling this pandemic? 


Yeah, thanks, Maree. I think Lucy summed it up pretty well. It's hard not to feel a little bit of deja vu this time around. Given the timing of all of this as well, it really does feel like a repeat of last year. And you know, there was some novelty to it last year, and we were all in the spirit of, we're going to get through it. We're going to get through all of these lockdowns and then we'll be over the hills, and we'll be all good. 

Coming back to a second big lockdown is definitely something that I think that I and many other people my age were not prepared for. I think we were all ready to settle back into the prime years of our life and knowing that we're gonna have to put just another hold on all those plans that we have, and all the grand ambitions that people my age do have about their lives, I think is quite dispiriting.


Thanks Swapnik, and Pranita.


Thanks, Maree. I think I've got my second dose of the vaccine so that's a relief. I'm a bit relieved this time, but the challenge for me is homeschooling, so that's really getting to me this time, because I think I can teach anyone except my own daughter. So that's definitely come up very strongly. And I do miss my parents, my family back home, which has really, really resonated this time, because as you know, this, the pandemic has hit our part of the world very hard, and it's hard –


– Where's back home Pranita? 


Back home is Nepal. So it's hard. Yeah. 


Yeah, thanks. Thanks so much for bringing that into the conversation, because we have such a community of connection around the world, and that's actually been one of the things that this has really impacted upon.

Marlee, just briefly reflecting on how the feeling or managing through this time.


Yeah, I think, well, I found it really, really hard. Look, I didn't have a particularly raging social life to begin with pre-pandemic. But I think the loss of – I think I've just realised how much of my kind of happiness comes from meeting new people, hearing out new ideas, going to new places, and I think I've done the same walk almost for every day for the last three, four weeks, until I think I'm going pretty insane, but I am getting a lot better.

Well I have a much closer relationship with my dog now, so that's a plus, but otherwise, yeah, I'm okay. 


Marlee, you've just picked up on one of the strategies, which we'll talk about later on. But that really actively doing things, being active in the face of the ongoing ongoingness.

So we had many, many questions come through to the panel before we even started today, and so we've tried to bring those together to in different sections, so that we can understand some of the reflections that the audience wanted us to have.

So one of the ones we want to really reflect on at the moment, and Swapnik you pointed to this in the way that you expressed your experiences, was that young people are faring much worse in lockdown, than other people and other groups.

Maybe one of the reasons for this is because of the disruption that occurs at such a formative time of our lives – or their lives – so that time, as you said, where you're making friends, and you're thinking about how you're going to enter the world.

I don't know if you want to expand on that just before we start, but then I'd like to ask Marlee, if she could reflect on some of the impacts and the data that she's seen. Swapnik, do you just want to talk first?


Sure, yeah. As I have already mentioned, it is sort of the prime years of our lives that that are being lost a little bit to this lockdown. I think so much of who we are as people get shaped in this period of social and cultural development, and I think losing so many formative aspects of that is not really easy, and I think it really does affect young people in a very distinct way.

You know, a lot of the experiences that you would like to have as a young person, friendships and relationships and the ability to travel and things like that – all of these very, very culturally ingrained and formative experiences are lost for a significant subset of people. 

I also think – perhaps it's just me and I'm a real extrovert – but I think a lot of people my age really thrive on social interaction and social connection, and losing things like going to university and having the ability to bump into people, and have random conversations and that sort of incidental contact, I think is so important to young people's development, losing all of that is really difficult, and it definitely does impact people's mental health quite significantly.


Thanks, Swapnik. And Marlee, could you talk about what you found in the data and the insights that you've seen from the work that you've been doing? 


Yeah, so I have kind of two sources of data on this. So one is one that I know you're very familiar with in particular, and I had the opportunity working as part of the team supporting the Think Tank to synthesise all the research we've had in Australia around the impact of COVID on mental health – and we found that as a whole, young people had much worse mental health outcomes; so anxiety, depression and loneliness, and distress more broadly than any other age group. And that's really concerning, I think there's something going on there, and for some that lasted beyond the pandemic, the height of lockdown restrictions. 

I also have another source of data, which is the Learn Together study, a longitudinal study of over 2,000 Australians nationwide over several years trying to understand what the determinants of changing in mental health and substance use is – and we found several things. 

First of all, we found generally that people who were going through a transition point in their lives when COVID hit, were much worse off than other people, and if you think about young people, they are, there's a time of many, many transitions; and they're not just your everyday transitions, they're the big ones.

As Swapnik was saying, it's things like moving from school to uni, or work, moving out of home, having the first adult relationships, making friends for the first time, that might be your people; the people that are your tribe; and they're the kind of relationships that foster belonging. And we know from network theory, they're also the kinds of relationships that help keep you well, and they also help you often with getting opportunities for jobs later on. These things are so important for our mental health. 

Our parents did it, our siblings did it, and then it's time for people to experience that and they're missing out. As Swapnik was saying, yes, there's loss of incidental connections, because it's that shared experience that the kind of fun and the novelty and the kind of unusual things that you share on day to day periods, like sitting next to someone in a lecture, and you know, having a terrible lecture of experience and just laughing and going, "Oh, my God, was it just me here? Or is it everyone?" Those are the things that you remember, it's not the Zoom call where you kind of were there, you know, virtually side-by-side. 


I can see Lucy laughing at that, sorry, Marlee. I'm wondering about her lecture experiences, and whether she wants to share them.


Uni was a fantastic time, but I'm also laughing because it's not just that, it's the workplace incidental experiences. It's the social club incidental experiences that we've taken for granted for so long and now appreciate are the real gold of our professional-social relationships. 


Just quickly, before we go on, I also want to stress that I think that there is another reason why this group is so particularly impacted is because the government restrictions that helped to kind of constrain infection – while so important for especially in Sydney, and Victoria and South Australia at the moment – are particularly impactful to the everyday lives of young people. So you know, the things that young people tend to do things like travelling and meeting lots of new people and being in large groups, but also working in kind of casualised workforces around retail, hospitality, entertainment; these are things that are quick to shut down and open up; and I know that Swapnik's going to talk about that later as well. But I think there are reasons. 


Marlee, a lot of the information we have is around young people who were sort of older adolescence through to early 20s. But certainly the data in the UK is showing that the impacts are on even younger young people, so five through to 16. And Pranita, I know you mentioned you've got a 10 year-old who you're homeschooling. So I know we're using the term young people but we really are talking about quite a broad group of people.  Pranita, just before I throw to you, could I just throw to Lucy to see your comments Lucy, on how young people are faring much worse within lockdown and what experiences you've had? 


Well, I have a small sample of three in my own household that I'm managing: 13 to 17. But, you know, the data is bearing out that our small sample of three is not unique. We're seeing that, 30% of young people are reporting high and very high levels of psychological distress at the moment; and that's something that as a community, we need to collectively come together and support and manage those young people, their families and their support networks. It's a really powerful time, I think, and a very emotional time; and a somewhat unique for us to all navigate as, whether that's parents as teachers, as friends, and as the young people themselves, how do we best get through this?


30% it's quite confronting, isn't it?


It's very confronting, and that's the latest data from the the ABS household survey just out this week. 




Marlee, Swapnik and Lucy's touched upon all of these, but I can definitely say for myself that locked on 2.0 has been difficult for my daughter at least. She's like, "When can I go back to school?" all the time and just that incidental, sort of mixing with their peers is so important. Even for like, 10 to 11 year-olds, it's very important. And she says, you remember what happened in the earlier lockdown, we don't want the same thing. So there's a lot of family dynamics there. I think it's hard for everyone.


I also think, we've been talking about the individuals and how it's impacting on individuals, but the pandemic of all events impacts across our whole society.

I know, Pranita you come at it from the built environment and Swapnik from the housing insecure. I'm just wondering if we could touch on some of those issues now as well, that COVID and ongoing lockdowns, they really disproportionately affect sections of society. We've talked about young people, but it's also women, people of colour, people already experiencing disadvantage. So yeah, just to explore some of those issues with the panel around; asking Swapnik, can you talk about the impact of insecure work and housing on people?


Sure, yeah. Young people work predominantly in very casualised industries, particularly in things like hospitality, which of course, the first casualties of any lockdown, because of course, you can't go out and go to the pub, and all of the other things that you would normally do. And that means that for a lot of young people – because of the casualised nature of their work, and because of how susceptible they are to changes in consumer demand – they're the first ones that are losing income anytime one of these lockdowns comes around.

Of course, there is a social need for these kind of lockdowns, and we need to, I'm sure the public health advisors to enforce them as much as is needed. But the problem is that there's not really adequate support for these people, even when they do lose their work.

The first time around, we had JobKeeper.  JobKeeper was, of course, very good and helped a lot of people weather the storm. But for a lot of casual workers, or young people, there was eligibility requirements for how long you'd have; you'd have to be a casual worker before you were able to access it.

This time around, in order to access the income supports that are being rolled out, you can't be receiving any other transfer payment from from the government in any way, and that means for a lot of people who are on things like Youth Allowance or JobSeeker, they're not able to access any of this pandemic relief, and that's quite unfortunate. 

The SRC has launched a campaign as of today to get a payment of $750 per week to every person that's lost work and to raise the rate of JobSeeker to $80 a day. I also think one of the other aspects of this is the extent to which young people are in rental accommodation, with the kind of ballooning rents that we're seeing – and I'm sure Pranita can talk about it a little bit more – that takes up significant portion of people's disposable income and without things like rent, without things like eviction moratorium on rent reductions, it's very hard for people to get through this without being significantly financially impacted. 


So Pranita, is that the experience that young people really do experience, that housing challenges with housing affordability, and challenges with housing insecurity?


I think building on Swapnik's point on housing insecurity, the commodification of housing and labour has been there even before the pandemic. What the pandemic has done is added a layer; another layer of vulnerability, which is held on to that.

And I think in terms of young students, if we say, to international students, the challenges most of them, like we said – there's rental stress, so a lot of them would live in shared accommodation, which is an issue with the pandemic. I think that adds another layer of: "Will I get COVID, because I'm sharing my room with so many people?" It's an overcrowded, less ventilated, poor kind of accommodation, because I think the meaning of home has become so important now with the pandemic, that you are supposed to be safe and sort of secure in your home. But if you're living with a lot of people, because you want to save rent, the anxiety sort of increases with the pandemic, and with our research current research with my supervisor, Professor Nicole Gurran, we're looking into these kinds of housing conditions, and we work also with Marlee in terms of how to sort of uncover these kinds of precarious housing conditions. I think that's one of the key challenges.


Just picking up on that you added on that it's not just the housing insecurity that's laid over the top now, it's also the health insecurity. Earlier on you said, "I've had my second dose of vaccine." I've had my second dose of AstraZeneca, as well. But it's pretty tough for young people when they can't get access to the doses. But Lucy, I don't know, if you want to speak to that. 


It's interesting, Maree, and I'm not up to speed on if there are particular studies. But what we've seen in terms of the interventions that have developed over the last 12 months to really support people living on their own, are quite interesting. And really, a lot of innovation. 

In my community, one of the groups came together and got a network of volunteers to do assertive outreach calls, not just to old people, but to young people. And they signed up the young people to be the callers, and the feedback on that little micro group was that the caller's got more out of it than the people they were calling.

So I think if you are feeling that sense of isolation, there are lots of groups looking for people to participate in some incredible community support that can be done over the telephone, online; you know, too much Zoom, but at least you're connecting and contributing. I noticed the government the other day is calling for more contact tracers. There are opportunities for people to be part of moving forward. And I think that's a really helpful approach to take, how can I be part of moving forward?


Yeah. Be physically distancing, but then using our safe practices to ensure that the virus doesn't spread. But yeah, how do we feel safe and comfortable to move out? 

It's been an amazing conversation that we've had, I do want to throw to a question that came through from the audience before we started the panel, and then after that, we will go into some practical strategies and tips. 

But that question came through from G. Campbell, and it was, "What are some practical tips and strategies to support young people feeling virtually connected via social media, but disconnected from meaningful real life friendship groups?" 

So Marlee, do you want to talk about technology as a divider, but also maybe as a helper? 


Yes, sure. So I think loneliness, as we're talking about earlier, has increased during the pandemic, especially in these lockdown periods for so many people. But I think that that's a really normal response to what is a really abnormal situation.

And actually, loneliness can be seen more as an alarm system, or like a kind of social thermostat kind of thing that allows you to kind of recognise in your life, 'Okay, where am I feeling that social lack? And then where can I go to try and fulfil it and try and reconnect in that way?' So, yes, we do have a few less options available to us and the kind of things that we're able to kind of go and do with people. But we can kind of work around using the tools that we have. I think that one thing that we are – I think I have to acknowledge that Zoom fatigue, and the irony of us sort of being on it right now, is very real. No-one wants to be on Zoom at the end of the day but I think that going back to what I was talking about before, the incidental chat, like the kind of shared experiences, is really important.

So there are things you can do now, like Teleparty, like watching movies together virtually, calling someone when you go for a walk or playing games online with people in a way that you can talk to them at the same time, it's really important. It's a good way to feel like you're sharing an experience while you're not actually sharing it and making new memories. 

But I also think that there is something to be said for the old fashioned kind of connection that can be made by sending a letter to someone or an email. Because let's face it, none of us have any good gossip at the moment, nothing's happening in our lives. But you can get that kind of more intimate connection, when you do sit down and kind of draw out a letter that's also really special to receive. So I think that's a kind of something I've been doing and something that I think can be really helpful. 


Thanks, Marlee. I think that is also part of the fatigue, that we're feeling that it is hard to engage those strategies. The first time around, we had the adrenaline and we had the novelty of them. Second, or third, or fourth or fifth time around, it's a bit of a bigger hill to climb. But I am hearing everyone telling me we've got to climb that hill. 

So we also have a question from Diana Nawara, and Diana asks, "Are there any studies on coping mechanisms of young people who live alone? Have no partners or any family nearby during lockdown? And is there a difference in mental health between young people living alone versus in a shared house with a partner?"

Lucy I'm gonna just, if that's okay, throw to you. Because, you and I live within the mental health field; we've been in it for a lot of years so we've got a really good set of skills about how to reach out, but that's not actually the case for everyone. So, that idea about what coping mechanisms are, what levels of support are out there for people, maybe if you could just touch on that. 


That's right, Maree, and there are a range of services. Your GP, as we always say, is often a good starting point if you feel like you need more help. But we do have a range of great supports in this country that are online, through MindSpot; there's some really good apps that are very evidence-based; and if you go to the reputable hubs to look for those, you're on a good place of holding some safety and holding some support until you can get to the next level of care. 


Yeah, I really love seeing the Adopt a Healthcare Worker, giving support to the movement, which is Adopt a Healthcare Worker. And I know Marlee, you just gave some great tips and people are asking for them. So we will make sure we'll pop all of those at a later stage. Marlee.


Yeah, I just wanted to say a few things. So from our sample, which is not fully representative but a good a good sense, I suppose – is we didn't actually find the difference between the mental health of people living alone, or together amongst the young populations. But that's not to say that there isn't an effect on an individual level and so there are a few things there that I think are important. 

I think that NSW will take an approach out or leaf out of the Victorian book and allow for bubbles versus people living alone, a social bubble of blended bubbles rather than just the intimate partner bubble. In life, the fact is people can be single and living alone and want to connect.

But I also think, I wanted to comment on a study that we have coming out this week from the Learn Together study, which was also just as Pranita was talking about, looking at the impact of housing on mental health through COVID. But one thing we found was that neighbourhood belonging was really important, above and beyond a lot of the existing problems that people have in their lives. So income, existing mental health issues, but if you feel like you belong in your neighbourhood, your mental health is a lot better. So I think you have to look contextually, not just whether people are living alone or in groups. But where I live and how to live can be important, and yes, it can be in a share house. But if you're living in a share house, people that you find stressful, or you don't get along with, that can be even more isolating than if you are living alone. So it's all very contextual. 


And Marlee, I can see Pranita really nodding with that one, did you want to add in there Pranita? 


Just wanted to bring in that international lens where, like visiting friends and family can be almost impossible in the near future for many international students or even staff for that matter of fact, but I think it's important to connect emotionally to people. Very much so in this time, because I feel it like I really feel that being far away and not being able to go back, as in when you want can be really, really challenging to connect with family and I think that is a challenge. Definitely. 


One of those things is about keeping motivated, isn't it? I'm wondering if Swapnik can talk. You're an Arts/Law student, Swapnik, in the middle of a pandemic. What strategies are you using to keep motivating, if I can put you on the spot?


Look, I hate to be put on the spot here, because I will have to say, not all of my strategies have been very effective.

But look, I think at the end of the day, getting through sort of this pandemic is difficult, and there's no harm at all, in acknowledging that there are difficulties in it. I've certainly had my ups and downs with getting through each of my semesters, and for people who are watching right now, who are at university, people doing their HSC, all of that, I'm sure is, remarkably difficult. But I do find that things like setting small goals, and at the end of the day, part of my motivation is simply the fact that I don't really have much else to do, I'm sort of forced into doing my work and forced into trying to get through all of it purely by virtue of the fact that I can't really do much else or go anywhere else.  I wanted to add though, just sort of two dimensions to this discussion that we've just had.

The first one, which Pranita already mentioned, is the international student dimension. So many of the strategies that that we're talking about here, sort of rely on the assumption that people already have existing networks in this country and networks that they can easily and quickly and reliably access through online means as well as being able to return to them.

For a lot of international students who might have just come out the very side of the pandemic, and haven't had a chance to go back, are they still sticking around, that's a very difficult thing to do; and especially if English is your second language, or if you haven't had a chance to go to university, you've just been sitting in front of a Zoom screen, that's a really hard thing to have that kind of community. 

The second aspect of it also, I think, is the extent to which people that are facing intimate partner violence or domestic and family violence, as sort of really disproportionately disadvantaged by this kind of lockdown. I know that there are a lot of compassionate exemptions for lockdowns, but one of those is, of course, people who are facing this kind of family violence. But you know, it doesn't make the situation any easier; and it doesn't make social connection and doesn't make any of these coping strategies any easier. And I think that really speaks to some of the structural issues that that go back to what we've been talking about, about different people experiencing this lockdown differentially, 


It's equally experienced. And you know, just following – Lucy, yes, I was about to throw to you, go on. 


Just to follow on from Pranita and Swapik I think, and I know we've got a lot of communities listening in today. Some of the research we did through my Sydney Women's Fund shows that people in the community want to join and participate but they often don't know how, and that might be for a raft of reasons: they're new to the country, they're new to the community. And so I think it's a real strong message to these people running programmes, don't assume people will come to you to volunteer, and make sure people know that there are opportunities, and really reach out with your opportunities as much as the service itself. Let people know you're looking for people with language to do some of this assertive outreach, really make sure people know you're there with a service that is looking for participants. 


Just following on from what Swapnik was saying, one of the things that has really been highlighted in the recent data that you talked about that was released yesterday, was the demand on clinical services – that our clinical services are really, really important as one of the most important planks in actually ensuring that we have a mentally healthy society, and they are under a lot of pressure. We need to make sure we keep an eye on making sure we have high quality – and that we also have adequate access to high quality care. I know you're nodding with me there, and we talk a lot about the community responses. But it's also important to balance that up with actually, you know, if you are experiencing anxiety and depression that gets to the point that you need help, you've got to work out how to get it but it's important to reach out for it.

We will put up links and access to clinical services, to help lines and some guidance for people if they are listening online and they're feeling like they're wanting to reach out for care. The other spot you can go is the Matilda website; it also has some guidance as to how you can navigate your way through to those  care. 

Okay, so thank you so much for all of those questions. I'm looking at the time and I know that we're getting loads of questions coming through and I would really like to head now to some more questions from the audience. 

"What are your top three wishlist government responses to protect young mental health right now?" 

Marlee, do you want to talk about what came out through the Think Tank as a response to COVID, not necessarily specifically to young people. 


So we asked people in this group of 2,000 to talk about what they thought were the main issues in mental health, post-COVID in Australia at the time, and it was really interesting. I guess we kind of assumed – or I kind of assumed, I should say – that a lot of the anxiety and fear and depression around COVID would be around fear of infection or an infection of loved ones; and that was a little bit about it, what people were experiencing.

But otherwise, some of the main kind of pathways to poor mental health were the social affects or social disconnection from their social institutions, networks, which they really value like in a neighbourhood in a community level, and on the other hand, it was the economic – the fear of economic downturn of not being able to pay for housing, to not be able to kind of exist in the way that you're accustomed and that your family is accustomed to. And so we start to see that there are these main kind of realms, the economic and the social, which are really important. I think that any kind of government intervention would need to be in those areas. 

A big thing that people talked about was the service system, which is, we know was already strained before COVID happened and now it's in even more of a kind of area of crisis and stress in the recent budgetary walks, increase in service delivery is is great, but it needs so much more than that, to get to what we need to.

Can I just add, because I'm also a housing tragic, that I think that we need to have better housing outcomes, or an available affordable housing variable for young people, because we know that people – especially people with an existing mental health issue – need a stable place to live in order to have to recover well and have good mental health and at the moment, there's just not that available. And we know that that's a precursor for bad mental health, particularly during COVID. 


Hey Pranita, do you want to jump in there? And then I'm going to throw the Swapnik.


I think affordable housing should have been on top of the agenda even before the pandemic. But I think pandemic's given us the reason to make it like a prime issue because housing and health are very, very much interrelated. Now, the pandemic has shown that. 

But I'd also like to add and sort of respond to an earlier event that we had around COVID in India and Nepal, because the scale of COVID was so different in those contexts, and the impact of mental health on people has been so drastic, like it's been so different in terms of kids losing both parents – how do you, what do you do there? So I think it's a bit of; the more we read about international cases, and how COVID has actually impacted people in other countries, and where there is absence of government support in many cases, how do they deal with it? I think that those are the things that could sort of give us inspiration to move on, because we are in a privileged situation at the moment. I think in that ways, I think you you put perspective to a lot of things so I just thought that could be something that we should be grateful for.


Yeah, yeah Pranita. Swapnik.


Yes. Three government responses. I think the three in my mind are quite clear. The first one is multiple things packaged into one. So apologies if that's cheating in answering this question –


– We'll allow you a cheat.


Yeah, I gotta have one today. 

The first one, I think, is really, I think designing and rebuilding a much more just and wide ranging set of supports for people that are being disadvantaged by this lockdown, but also, I think using this crisis as an opportunity to reconsider the kind of economic and social policy that we have in this country. What that means, in my mind is the stuff that I mentioned earlier that we're campaigning about: $750 a week direct payments to people who are affected by the lockdown, but also raising the rate of JobSeeker to $80 a day so that people aren't living in poverty just because they're moving from job to job in what's already a quite loose labour market. And I think that kind of broad ranging welfare state policy – really tightening labour markets and rebuilding the welfare state in this country – is right up there in terms of what's going to improve people's mental health, to the extent that that's linked to the economic side of things as Marlee already mentioned. 

I think the second one is better investment in mental health resources. We've already mentioned across the board, the strain that's being put on the clinical side of it, and you know, mental health issues are obviously socially contingent, but there's also a clinical element to them and there's no denying that clinical help can be really useful. But that infrastructure is really, really stretched. It's very difficult to navigate for young people, I think simplifying it, and really, really increasing its capacity is the only way forward. 

And I think the third thing, that's part of what really impacts young people's mental health, but I'm not sure has really been touched on yet, which is the issue of the vaccines generally. And I think improving and accelerating the vaccine rollout is one of the few things that will make people feel better through all of this, because they know that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. But if they can't have access to vaccines, and all the hesitancy about you know, which vaccine to get, all of that stuff really impacts on people's mental health, because they just don't know when this is going to end. 


Thanks for that, and that really picks up on what Lucy was saying. That, as someone who's had both shots of AZ in my arm, I've just really feel almost that guilt and despair that an older Australian I can get it but as a younger – as a 30, or 40 year old – I couldn't. So anyone bump on in if you want to add any more to the three wishlist. I think we've covered a phenomenal number of things.  

I might pop on to the next question now, and it's a really interesting one. "Do the high level of digital connectedness among young people have a mitigating effect on experiencing negative mental health impacts?" Luke, via Facebook. So thanks, Luke, via Facebook.

But prior to the pandemic – I'm just going to throw a little bit of data into here beforehand – prior to the pandemic, we had been looking at digital connectedness amongst young people, particularly 13, 14, and 15 year-olds, and we were really interested in whether digital connectedness had had an impact and screen time and passive screen time, or types of screen times; it had an impact globally on young people's mental health. There's a general sense, if you asked anyone over the age of say, 40, what was wrong with our young people today? They would say to you, they spend too much time online. So we're trying to pull apart: is all digital good, or is all digital bad? And the basic answer is, some digital's good, and some digital's bad. A lot of passive screentime, not so good for your mental health. But we found games and active involvement in the use of digital online digital platforms was actually not – it didn't have a negative impact on young people's mental health. 

So, "Do the high levels of digital connectedness amongst young people have a mitigating effect on experiencing the negative health impacts?" It depends on what sort of digital connection and digital we're talking about. But yes, they can actually be positive in terms of mitigating the effects on experiencing negative mental health impacts. So if anyone wants to jump in on that question, and answer, let me know. But otherwise, we'll pop on to the next one. "How do young people" – oh sorry, Marlee, yeah, go.


I just going to say that we had a look at people's responses in Alone Together qualitatively to understand that question, and found that, yes, that helped, because people were already connecting in that way so it was really easy just to streamline and connect in. If you're already connected that way, there's not much difference. But there are a few issues with that. 

Number one was the impact of media like the constant barrage of negative COVID media was just a lot for people and screen times link with that.

But also a really interesting effect that was particularly sad, I think, is that a lot of people when moving from pre-COVID to COVID, they did a lot of us would have done –which I know I did – is if you're scared, and you reach for those who you really love, and you really value because you want to support them, and you want them to support you, and that's fantastic. But what it left was people that were, who might have been in the peripheries of friendship groups, and so what you're finding is that the people's relationships and friendship groups got really consolidated and strong and close, which is fantastic for them, but then left out these little extra people. So for them, the digital thing didn't really translate because the others weren't reaching out to them at the same way. So I think there are winners and losers, and that's one of the saddest things that's come out of the pandemic. 


Thanks, Marlee. Just popping on to the next question about, "How do young people cope with the fact that job cuts are happening everywhere? So companies aren't hiring, how do we enter the job market?" I feel like this is especially difficult because of how having a job can impact mental health.

Swapnik, you you really raised that question around having a job and having an income and how that impacts on your mental health. Do you want to have a first go at this question?


Absolutely. I saw it flash on the screen and all of the bells in my mind were ringing, because I think it really reflects a lot of the questions that we've been grappling with through the SRC and you know, me as a political economy student, have been grappling with academically. I wish I had a silver bullet answer, I don't. The truth of the matter is, over the past 30 years or so, labour markets in this country have been extremely deregulated in the name of flexibility. We've got a lot of casualisation. But it also means that there's a lot of slack and people are under-employed and in a crisis like this, where there's – not to get too technical – but there's not enough demand in the economy, we get a lot of unemployment. The way around that is to use industrial policy, to use direct government intervention, to use government investment to really get the labour market running hot so that people are able to get into jobs. 

Full employment was was once very highly valued policy goal in this country and I think the pandemic has really shown us that it is time for us to return to full employment, because, I have the same anxieties that this person is having about entering the job market, and I'm sure the people that aren't at university that aren't receiving these very prestigious, technical and intellectual recognitions, it must be much more frightening going out into the world, knowing that the kinds of jobs that you can get, and the amount of work that you can get is so limited. So really, it's a structural question that requires a really big policy response. 


Look, when I graduated last century, it was in the depression. We had the recession we had to have, and we all left uni being told that there were no jobs. And so I think there's an element in the cycle that kind of says, there's that perception. But I've been talking to a number of – just in one industry at the moment, in the last week in professional services, and one big professional services firm in this country has 600 vacancies at the entry to middle level. I think we have to be careful, and I'm not saying it's at an individual level, it's not challenging, but sometimes we have to challenge some of these messages out there that nobody's hiring, that there are no jobs.

Now, I think I would struggle if you were coaching someone to becoming a pilot, that might be a challenging career entry point. But we've seen some sectors that can't fill jobs at the moment and so one of the skills that we know that is part of being a career skill for the future is that flexibility of thinking and openness to new ideas, and maybe our path is not the one that we thought we would have. But there's some activity in adjacent space. 

I think there's a role for for unis and various groups to really work with students to say, what's the path? How do we think creatively in this market? Because I'm meeting employers all the time, who are looking for really good entry level people and not getting the applicants that they think are out there so there's a mixed message there and we need to challenge that. 

Now, to Swapnik's point, we do have some real issues in the structure of some work and I think we do have to have some big conversations around gig economy and what flex has done to the nature of work in this country. But I would try and put out a message of hope that there is there's a lot of work out there at the moment.


We only have five minutes to go so unfortunately, I'm going to have to wrap this up. But in wrapping us up, there was a very important question on the screen here, which was around – given that there's no definitive end in sight, and this affects the mental health of young people or adults, not just young people, but it affects the mental health of everyone – how can we encourage those struggling when we also can't see the end of this pandemic?

So I'm going to throw to each of the speakers to have a final thought and in closing the event, to get them to tell us one tip, one hint that they're using right at the moment to help them cope with exactly those feelings because we are in this together and we're trying to work our way through it. I'm going to throw to Marlee first. 


Yeah, thanks, Maree. It's good question. I think the most important thing is to recognise and acknowledge how you're feeling non-judgmentally. You're not alone. A lot of us are feeling pretty hopeless and low right now. But the first step to kind of cycle better is to kind of realise what you're feeling, reach out for help from friends or professionally.


Thanks Marlee. Pranita, what's your hot tip to end our session? 


Thanks, Maree. I think my hot tip is to engage, and as part of engagement, I would say routine is – although routine in lockdown might not sound the right way – but I think having; when I was reading, I was thinking about I do a lot of yoga so waking up before the sun rises is quite crucial. So when you see the sunrise, you see that hope sort of go up, and then doing one thing quite consistent every single day, in the morning, and then following a routine is quite important, and getting fresh air. I think that those are the three main points.


Wonderful Pranita, so that's really engaging, and that sort of active coping, and just not avoiding it, but making sure you do something every day. That's cool. Swapnik?


I think one of the best strategies that I've found is trying to find alternate ways of engaging in social interaction.

Marlee already mentioned things like Teleparty, I've been a convert since the last lockdown.

You know, just being able to do things like watching movies and TV with your friends and family. Being able to play games online, like my friends and I play Pictionary online all the time.

Even little things like, as Marlee mentioned as well, calling people when you go for a walk, or sometimes even during the semester, my friends and I would just call together and do our work silently, sitting on the screen across from each other. I think finding alternatives like that can really go a long way.


Thank you Swapik, and I'm just going to throw my one in here. Because I know my staff or my family will laugh when I say this –but my one is to try and switch off sometimes. So absolutely make sure I've watched the 11 o'clock news and tell me where I'm not allowed to go in Sydney or if I've ever been in a hot spot – but definitely try and switch off sometimes. Because in a time of uncertainty like this, I can find myself experiencing information overload, and I think we all need to find ways to just switch off from the COVID-19 barrage. And I'm going to finish off by throwing to Lucy for your tip.


I think the key thing that's working for me and that they say it's working, is to keep reaching out and acknowledge it's okay to not feel okay, and that does seem to be as cliched now as, "You're on mute." But it is okay not to feel okay.

And reach out. Reach out to a friend. Share. Often the best way to start sharing that is to share that vulnerability, "I'm really struggling today, can you just pump me up to get through the next meeting? And I'll be there to pump you up for the next meeting." We don't have to sort of get through for 100 days; if we can get through the day, we've done well, I think at the moment. And just sit there and reflect at the end of the day that we've done that. We got through that day, we're going to get up with the sunrise and take the hope for the next day. 

And if it's beyond our friend to carry us, reach out for other sources of help and support because they are there and there are so many people. We are a very caring community at the end of the day, and that gives me a lot of power, knowing this care.  

In my life, our family has been knocked by a number of curveballs, and I know the power of support. I know the power of getting handwritten letters, and how lifting that can be, and if we are there for each other reaching out, we are so much stronger. And don't take it for granted. Don't assume. Just pick up the phone, write the letter, and reach out.


Yeah, thank you Lucy. I've really, really enjoyed today, our connection across the international; that we really thought not just about internally in Australia, but our connection across the globe, and that has actually brought incredible joy to me today because it reminded me how much we are actually part of the rest of the world even though we feel like we're a fortress at the moment. 

So we're coming up on time, but before we go, I really want to thank our speakers. I want to thank Marlee, Lucy, Pranita, Swapnik; you have all been so generous with sharing your time and your tips and answering all of these questions.

Can I also thank everyone who joined us online today; those questions were incredible, and I really, really enjoyed seeing them and also hearing the answers that came through our discussion. 

We'll post a link to the Sydney Ideas page, which is where you'll find links to resources we mentioned and a transcript of today's discussion. Please stay in touch and take care.

I'm Marie Teesson, from Matilda Centre at the University of Sydney.

  1. Sleep! Our preliminary analysis found young adults who slept at least the same as pre-COVID or a bit more than pre-COVID were much less likely to have anxiety or depression up to a year after the pandemic started. You’ve got to remember, stress, fear and anxiety are normal reactions to the changes to our lifestyle, threat to our health and uncertainty about the future that the pandemic has caused. 
  2. Acknowledge how you are feeling and reach out for help if you need it. If you think about it, COVID-19 has been a disruption to all of the social structures in which we base our daily life – our work, our study, our relationships and therefore our identity and who we are. It’s normal to feel weird, low, helpless or just not okay. Being self-aware but non-judgmental of how you are feeling can help you process these experiences and recognise when it’s time to give yourself a break or seek help. 
  3. Do what so many young people are doing to cope – go for a walk, take a break from your screens, stay active.
  4. It's good to switch off sometimes. While it’s important to keep informed with COVID news and updates, make sure you take breaks to stop being bombarded with stressful news.
  5. Make sure you keep connections with others to maintain your mental health. 

  • Lifeline: or 13 11 14
  • National Indigenous Critical Response Service: 1800 805 801

For children and youth

The panel

Dr Marlee Bower is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Matilda Centre who is interested in the broader social determinants of mental health, particularly in understanding loneliness and isolation amongst marginalised individuals and how this relates to the built environment.

She is currently working with Dr Emma Barrett on a Process Evaluation of the EQUIPS programs, offender therapeutic programs delivered in custody and in the community by Corrective Services NSW and is the Academic Lead on the world first Mental Health Think Tank, chaired by Professor Maree Teesson.

Lucy Brogden has a strong commitment to helping others.  Her primary areas of focus are issues facing Women and Girls and Mental Health and Wellbeing particularly in the workplace.  She takes an evidenced based approach to problem solving and social investment. 

Lucy has more than 25 years’ experience commercial experience with companies including Macquarie Group and Ernst & Young working in accounting, finance and organisational psychology.   Specifically, Lucy has worked in trusted advisory roles with some of Australia’s leading CEO’s, Managing Partners, Ministers and Chairs.

Swapnik Sanagavarapu is the 2021 President of the Student Representative Council (SRC) at the University of Sydney; and studying Arts/Law. 

Swapnik also sits on a number of University governance committees, bringing student concerns to the University’s senior management.

Dr Pranita Shrestha is a Postdoctoral Research Associate at the Sydney School of Architecture, Design and Planning at the University of Sydney. Pranita is a research associate at The Urban Housing Lab, an instrumental housing studies focused research lab led by Professor Nicole Gurran.

Her key research interest focuses on housing affordability, informal housing markets, local rights-based heritage conservation, sustainable development and climate change, resilience and disaster risk management.

Professor Teesson is Director of the Matilda Centre for Research in Mental Health and Substance Use, Director of the NHMRC Centre of Research Excellence in Prevention and Early Intervention in Mental Illness and Substance Use (PREMISE) and NHMRC Principal Research Fellow at The University of Sydney.

Maree was announced as a Companion of the Order of Australia in the Australia Day 2018 Honours List. She is also a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Health and Medical Sciences and the Australian Academy of Social Sciences, a National Mental Health Commissioner and Member, National Health and Medical Research Council. Passionate about helping young Australians at this time her award winning online school wellbeing resources have been made available free to schools and teachers during COVID19 and can be found at

Event image: Photo by Kate Trifo on Unsplash

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