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COVID and the Mental Health of People Young and Old

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Those mindful of our human need to belong are surely unsurprised by the emotional challenges of shelter-in-place life. As social animals, our ancestors—and we, too—have flourished when connected in close, supportive relationships. To be physically distanced from friends, deprived of our communal parties, sports, and worship, isolated from work-mates, and unable to break bread with close friends is to have our social identities thwarted.

 

Facebook, FaceTime, Zoom, Skype, Instagram, and messaging all help. Facebook’s mission—“To give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together”—has merit. Nevertheless, as psychologist Jean Twenge reminds us, screen-based relationships are but a partial substitute for how nature has designed us: for eyeball-to-eyeball relationships.

 

Moreover, those crowded in small apartments with others may experience their own added challenges of too much contact, albeit with too few.

So it doesn’t astonish us, though it should concern us, that a Kaiser Family Foundation late March national survey found that, as the Washington Post headlined, “Coronavirus is harming the mental health of tens of millions of people in U.S.” And we’re likely also not shocked by an early-April Gallup survey that found people experiencing heightened worry and stress:

357265_COVID stress.png

But consider a less obvious question: Who do you suppose is feeling most stressed and lonely—those young or old?

If you guessed those old—those often alone and with so much less virtual socializing than those young and connected through social media—guess again. Who, for example, has in the last seven days reported feeling “lonely or isolated”? An AEI survey provides a clear answer:

  • Ages 18–29: 69 percent
  • Ages 30–49: 59 percent
  • Ages 50–64: 45 percent
  • Ages 65+: 39 percent

Gallup replicated the age difference, noting that “the decline in the percentage who are thriving is substantially greater among adults aged 18–44 than for older age groups.” That accelerates a nearly decade-long decline in teen and young adult mental health.

 

Finally, a point to ponder from 18-year-old essayist Jamie Margolin: “The way the coronavirus disproportionately affects older people is the exact way the climate crisis disproportionately affects young people…. Older generations have the highest risk of dying from [the coronavirus]. When it comes to the climate crisis, most of the statistics are flipped: Young people will suffer the most.”


Thus, a great question for our time: In our actions and voting, will we older folks (who feel grateful to younger folks who self-isolate to protect us from future harm) reciprocate with similar intergenerational altruism?

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About the Author
David Myers has spent his entire teaching career at Hope College, Michigan, where he has been voted “outstanding professor” and has been selected by students to deliver the commencement address. His award-winning research and writings have appeared in over three dozen scientific periodicals and numerous publications for the general public. He also has authored five general audience books, including The Pursuit of Happiness and Intuition: Its Powers and Perils. David Myers has chaired his city's Human Relations Commission, helped found a thriving assistance center for families in poverty, and spoken to hundreds of college and community groups. Drawing on his experience, he also has written articles and a book (A Quiet World) about hearing loss, and he is advocating a transformation in American assistive listening technology (see www.hearingloop.org).