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Why We Need a Mental Health ‘Vaccine’ for Young People

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It is widely accepted that older age groups (60 and older) are at increased risk of serious illness and death if they develop COVID-19. As a result, several regions have made the vaccine a priority for older adults. Young people are less likely to develop serious health problems if they develop COVID-19 and are therefore not among the priority vaccination groups. The silent wave of a related health problem – the mental health pandemic – is already underway, this time targeting a younger age group.

Early evidence suggests that this age trend is reversing, but the impact of the pandemic on mental health in society is likely to survive. A recent study published in the Canadian Journal of Psychiatry examined the early symptoms of anxiety during the pandemic. As clinical psychologists and trauma researchers, the research team was interested in understanding the mental health risks and resilience factors during COVID-19 and the long-term impact of these pandemics on human health.

After the outbreak of COVID-19, more than one-third of young people (18-24 years) suffered from clinically significant anxiety by the end of the pandemic. Young people also had significantly higher rates of depression and anxiety than older people. This trend can be seen in the data from the study, with depression and anxiety symptoms increasing in young adults and anxiety decreasing in older adults.

One theory is that older adults have advanced cognitive and behavioral strengths that enable them to have stronger emotional regulation. Previous research has shown that older adults are less likely to suffer from mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression than younger people, and this has been shown in studies on the impact of COVID-19 on young people’s mental health.

These strengths develop over time due to age changes and changes in perspective. From this perspective, older adults may have stronger cognitive and behavioral strengths than younger people. In addition to reducing the impact of the pandemic on physical health, we must also consider how we deal with the impact on mental health. Because of the large group of people affected by trauma during the pandemic, we are in a unique position to pursue secondary prevention. We do not have a ‘vaccine’ for mental health, but this approach could be a valuable tool for preventing and treating mental illness and other health problems.

Secondary prevention means reducing the impact of a disease when it is already present in its early forms. This essentially means preventing deterioration in the early stages of the disease, such as the onset of symptoms.

In the context of mental health, this would mean recognizing symptoms of mental illness early to reduce the long-term impact. Early intervention research suggests that cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) may be effective in reducing the likelihood of a mental health problem getting worse. Young people would therefore be a high-risk group that should be targeted as a prevention priority. It might be appropriate to introduce a ‘CBT vaccine’ for those who have experienced increased symptoms in the early stages.

Young people are more likely to experience anxiety and other mental health problems than older adults, and this long-standing problem is costly for the health system and can lead to job losses. There is also evidence that young people are at higher risk of mental illness than older adults with poorer physical outcomes, such as developing COVID-19. The research results are mixed, but we know that chronic mental illnesses, especially those where the mental health problem persists, can contribute to premature mortality, including death from heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, heart attack, and stroke.

Mental health is particularly important for young people, though it must be a priority for all age groups. Unfortunately, for many, receiving evidence-based treatment is often a luxury. If we really want to control all aspects of this pandemic, we must ensure the benefits of treatment are equally available to all of us.

In the long term, we need to continue investing in mental health professionals to meet the needs of this population. At a time of high demand, these services can be difficult to access, especially for young people. Given the lack of funding for research into the impact of the pandemic on health and well-being, a good start could be to provide science-supported CBT programs for children and adolescents.

This would eliminate difficult choices about priorities and access to health care. Although people recognize the need for mental health support, there is often confusion about the resources available. Only eleven percent of US consumers used telehealth services in 2019 before the pandemic.

Internet and app-based CBT programs vary widely in content, degree of participation, and effectiveness. Effective online self-monitoring programs keep milder mental health cases in line with their physical health needs.

It is difficult for consumers to know whether these programs are scientifically supported and effective, especially in the absence of data on the long-term impact of CBT programs on mental health. Sometimes it is costly to do the research, but it would allow a better understanding of the more complex and severe cases that receive intensive individual treatment.

Health experts can make clear recommendations based on existing well-designed clinical trials, as the responsibility should not lie with consumers. The COVID-19 pandemic is merciless and affects all areas of our lives. Health professionals should make clear recommendations based on existing research, not just anecdotal evidence from a small number of patients.

The first physical effects of COVID-19 disproportionately affected older people. However, the psychological effects of the pandemic have disproportionately affected younger generations.

We must start talking about a ‘vaccine’ for mental health in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, not only to protect us from the physical threat of the pandemic but to prevent the emotional harm it causes.



About the Author: Lauren’s main areas of interest are the brain and behavior, as well as what influences the decisions we make about our health and how we can change that over time. She studied Biopsychology at Leeds Beckett University. Currently, she is working as health content writer at Index of Sciences Ltd.

Photo by David Emrich on Unsplash

The opinions and views expressed in any guest blog post do not necessarily reflect those of www.rtor.org or its sponsor, Laurel House, Inc. The author and www.rtor.org have no affiliations with any products or services mentioned in the article or linked to therein. Guest Authors may have affiliations to products mentioned or linked to in their author bios.

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