Throughout school, Charlie Dane had always looked forward to university, imagining it as the place he’d spend the best years of his life, meet new friends and spread his wings as an adult.
What the 18-year-old didn’t expect was that he would spend most of his first term away from home in solitary confinement.
On arriving to start an engineering degree last September, Charlie found the fresher’s events were online and the lecture halls closed. Over the next lonely few weeks, he would try to chat with others in the eerily quiet stairwells and hallways, only to be told not to congregate by university staff.
Then, one rainy night in November, Charlie was slapped with a £100 fine by security guards with body cameras for standing outside his block in a small huddle.
Poppy Vernon, 17, (left) from Tavistock, Devon, found the first lockdown liberating at first and a chance to catch up on hobbies such as reading and playing piano. Anouska Ornstein, 15, (right) from North London, has also found social media to be a double-edged sword
‘After that, I was scared to leave my room,’ says Charlie, now back home with his parents Bill, an estate agent and Wendy, a teaching assistant, in Ashford, Kent.
Too nervous to name the prestigious university in the West Country, Charlie says his life is in limbo. ‘When you’re in a tiny room, 2.4 m wide, with only your laptop for company, one day merges into the next. It’s soul destroying.’ He sounds defeated by being treated like a criminal, when his only crime is to be a teenager in a pandemic.
Of course, over the past nine months, we have all had to adapt our lives radically to try to beat the virus. But, with teenagers, who are less likely to fall seriously ill with Covid-19, their main battle has been against two other enemies: loneliness and despair.
At a time when our young people have never needed an education and robust mental health more to shoulder the long-term economic shockwaves of the crisis, many feel they can see both ebbing away.
Freddie Faragher, 16, (pictured) a boarding school pupil from Telford, Shropshire, hasn’t seen a single friend for over six weeks since the autumn term ended
Being an adolescent is never easy, with many struggling to work out who they are and what they want to do with their lives. But, until now, at least our teens’ lives had organisation and purpose.
Critics may point out that previous generations had to live through the trauma of war and that all our young are being called upon to do now is sit on the sofa. But it’s hard to overstate how catastrophic such a loss of direction can be at this age.
While this may be peacetime, aimlessness forces many teens into a very different fight, one waged alone in their rooms. And the older teens get, the more they feel it. According to a survey by the UCL Institute of Education, 19-year-olds are suffering the highest levels of depression, anxiety and loneliness.
This week, the Royal College of Psychiatrists warned that NHS figures showing the record number of referrals for child and adolescent mental health problems — now 4,615 per 100,000, up nearly 20 per cent on last year — risk many in this generation being lost to ‘lifelong’ mental illness.
Sixteen-year-old Raakhi Bhagdev, from Stockport, Cheshire, is in the first year of A-levels at Manchester High School for Girls
For some, the first lockdown had been too much. Two students took their own lives in October because they were struggling to cope with the isolation.
The family of second-year Cardiff University history student Lily Arkwright have told how the 19-year-old went from being a ‘smart, funny, life of the party kind of person’ to having the ‘light and life’ drained out of her.
Lockdown was ‘100 per cent to blame’, says her mother Annie, from Ludlow, Shropshire.
Six ways to help them beat the pandemic blues
Knock on their door
Don’t allow your teens to stay in their room for hours. If you haven’t heard from them, invite them to do something with you. Avoid criticism. To a teen feeling low, what sounds to you like a helpful suggestion will be heard by them as a dig.
One day at a time
If your teen seems overwhelmed with concerns about their future, they are likely to be thinking emotionally, which makes them believe these fears must be based in fact.
Tell your teen their worries are a natural, self-protective response. Feeling unhappy in these uncertain times does not mean there’s something ‘wrong’ with them.
Let go of certainty
Life is full of uncertainties and we have little power over big events, especially a pandemic. However, psychologist Becky Goddard-Hill, author of Be Happy, Be You: The Teenage Guide advises teens to make a list of the things they can’t control and then come up with a positive alternative they can control for each. Becky says: ‘For example, while they may not be able to see a certain friend in person during lockdown, they can take control by arranging a regular video call with that friend.’
Look, you can cope!
Worry turns to anxiety when teens believe they aren’t able to cope. At a neutral time, when they’re not upset, talk through times when they’ve overcome tough obstacles.
Limit social media
talk about the signs, such as anxiety about their looks, which can show they are getting pulled down a social media black hole. Suggest that when they are starting to feel self-critical, it should set off alarm bells that it’s time to switch to another activity.
psychologist Susan Jeffers suggests teens write a list of things that concern them, such as: ‘I’m worried I won’t get the GSCE grades now I’m not taking the exams’ and replace ‘I’m worried’ with ‘I wonder if’. Curiosity is better than fear.
The same month, first-year student Finn Kitson, 19, was found dead at Manchester University after taking his own life. His father, Cambridge economist Michael, said: ‘If you lock down young people because of Covid-19 with little support, you should expect that they suffer severe anxiety.’
Youth suicide prevention charity, Papyrus, has said lockdown is mentioned by 80 per cent of calls from young people and they notice a surge in calls and messages each time a lockdown is announced.
Poppy Vernon, 17, from Tavistock, Devon, found the first lockdown liberating at first and a chance to catch up on hobbies such as reading and playing piano. The third has left her exhausted.
She says: ‘I don’t sleep as well because I’m subconsciously worrying — not only about the fact the virus seems to be closing in, but also about my future.’
Poppy attends a community college and normally moves between the homes of divorced parents, Bracken, a PR consultant, and David, who owns a property company. Now her A-level exams have been scrapped, she feels whatever grades she gets won’t feel deserved or be taken seriously.
‘With exams off, I’m thinking: “Will my grades be enough to do the university courses I want to do? Once I’ve got a degree, will there even be any jobs?” The whole not knowing what the future holds is so draining.’
In the meantime, some of Poppy’s friendships are slipping away and milestones she was looking forward to, such as her school prom, are looking less likely.
She says: ‘It’s my 18th birthday in March. A few years ago, I might have imagined having a party. Now I am praying I will at least be allowed to see one friend.’
When the third lockdown was announced earlier this month, Poppy broke down. ‘When Boris broke the news, I just cried. This is the hardest lockdown yet. All teens need space, but now the wintry weather means it’s harder to get outdoors.
‘Lots of my friends are struggling. Yes, we are all in the same boat. But as one of my mates pointed out: the boat is sinking.’
Poppy’s younger sister Hazel, 16, is battling her own disappointment. A nationally ranked tennis player, she has seen her future stall. ‘I’m back to training on my own with a tennis ball against a wall,’ she says. ‘For many people, not being able to play tennis may not sound important. But it’s my life. Without it, I have nothing. So I’ve been very tearful.’
The biggest battle for all young people is against loneliness. Prolonged isolation makes adolescents more vulnerable to self-critical thoughts. Urgent referrals for young people starting outpatient treatment for eating disorders hit a record peak of 625 from July to September last year.
Before lockdown, Emily Dennis*, 16, who lives with her two sisters and parents in Hendon, North London, had never been on a diet.
But when her secondary closed in March, she started to spend so much time alone in her room she got sucked into a vortex of social media, following influencers who encourage their fanbase to spend their time in lockdown on workout challenges. She started following Chloe Ting, who has three million fans on Instagram, working out every day in her room to try to get Chloe’s washboard abs.
But feeling the results were too slow, Emily started making herself sick after meals. Her friends were so concerned by her dramatic weight loss she agreed to get in touch with a school counsellor, who helped her see how much she was harming herself.
Looking back, Emily says: ‘In lockdown, everything felt out of control. I felt so trapped at home, like the one thing I could control was my weight. That was the one thing that made me feel better. But if I looked at fitness challenges on my phone, the algorithms showed me more. Social media reinforced the idea — to a really unhealthy extreme.’
In the absence of friends to spend time with, Anouska Ornstein, 15, has also found social media to be a double-edged sword. Anouska, who lives in Crouch End, North London, with parents Zoe, an interiors writer, and Dan, a lawyer, and her two younger brothers, says: ‘Friends are so important because we’re in such an awkward phase of our life.
‘We’re not kids, or adults. We’ve got no idea who we want to be or what we want to look like yet. So when you’re alone, you start to overthink your personality and how you look. You don’t have friends to contradict the negative views you have of yourself.
‘You just scroll and scroll [on social media]. And by the time you come up for air, you’re like: “Why don’t I have a thigh gap? Why haven’t I got hips dips?”
‘Friends help define you and school gets you to use your brain. So when I had neither, I felt lost.’
Boys suffer just as much from missing friends. Freddie Faragher, 16, a boarding school pupil from Telford, Shropshire, hasn’t seen a single friend for over six weeks since the autumn term ended.
Most of the year, his only human contact has been his parents, teachers Richard and Gill.
‘I’m a very sociable person, so I’ve never spent this much time alone before — 80 per cent in my room. My mood has gone up and down and swings between being annoyed at being stuck at home and accepting it.’
Although Freddie meets his male friends online every night to play video games, such as Counter Strike, it’s not the same, says Freddie. Such isolation meant he had little to distract him after his grandmother Edna died from old age in a nursing home.
‘Covid restrictions meant we couldn’t go and see her and it’s horrible to think of her dying alone. School would have taken my mind off it. Though I would never have believed I’d ever say this a couple of years ago, I miss the community and the sense of belonging.’
And the underlying fear is that although teens are the least likely to fall ill, they could be the Trojan horses which bring the virus to more vulnerable family members.
Sixteen-year-old Raakhi Bhagdev, from Stockport, Cheshire, is in the first year of A-levels at Manchester High School for Girls. She has lived with the fear that she could bring the virus home to her father Parag, 54, an IT manager, who has Type 2 Diabetes.
Raakhi says: ‘When I did go into school, there was always the intense worry that I’d be the one who’d bring it home. I’d sanitise my school desk and, once home, take my bag straight upstairs and change out of my clothes.
‘On the bus, I was always trying not to touch handles and to avoid sitting next to people. But if someone sits next to you against the social distancing rules, it’s hard to tell them to keep their distance if you are younger. It’s stressful.’
So how do this generation see the future? Despite the low points, there are also the young people who feel if they can survive this, they can survive anything.
Indeed, Raakhi believes she’s learnt a lot. ‘Yes, there have been low points. Just at the time I was finding my independence, my freedoms were taken. But I also think it’s been character-building. It’s true I won’t get this time back. But I’ve got a long life to live and I am sure I can make up for it.’
Beth Toeman, 18, also admits her first term at Birmingham University studying English is far from what she was hoping for.
For one thing, Beth, who lives with her photographer father Paul and retailer mother Louise in North London, still hasn’t set foot in a lecture theatre and is angry that, in the future, she will still have to pay back the loan for her £9,000 tuition fees.
After the 10pm curfew was introduced during her early weeks, Beth recalls going from ‘being out until the early hours meeting people, to being in bed by 11pm, feeling like a grandma. I do feel a bit cheated out of the university experience,’ says Beth.
‘But it goes against my nature not to think that things won’t get better. I’m optimistic. We have to be. Even if there are new variants, I put my faith in scientists. They have learned so much about it in such a short time.’
‘It’s valid to feel angry, but we can’t afford to feel like this for ever. Whatever my generation has been through, we can’t ever lose hope. Things will get better again.’
*Emily’s name has been changed. For confidential support if you’re struggling to cope, call the Samaritans (samaritans.org) on 116 123.
Tanith Carey is author of What’s My Teenager Thinking with Dr Angharad Rudkin, published by DK.