The pandemic has profoundly affected young people, for whom lockdown measures have drastically reduced opportunities to learn, work and socialize. The toll it has taken on their mental health has been particularly heavy, compounded by a limited ability to make their voices heard. In addition, public discourse has often branded youth as main transmitters, or “superspreaders”, of the virus.
On top of the difficulties young people have faced, governments and health systems have struggled to meet their needs during the pandemic. This was the clear conclusion at the recent Policy Forum on Behavioural and Cultural Insights, which brought together Member States to discuss the impact of the pandemic on the Region’s youth on 10 June.
Speaking to the 50 assembled participants of the Forum, Dr Hans Henri P. Kluge, WHO Regional Director for Europe, spoke of the “immense gratitude” that young people deserved from the public health sector and wider society for their sacrifices over the last 16 months. He highlighted the importance of creating meaningful engagement with young people, noting that, “if we are to take young people’s experiences and well-being seriously, we must take youth participation seriously”.
Hearing from young people
Marius Schlageter, Vice-President of the German Federal Youth Council, called for the recognition of young people as a marginalized demographic. “They are unable to vote and run for office, so they are not represented in our democracy. Therefore, a special effort needs to be made to recognize the needs of young people within policy,” he pointed out.
The participation of young people in decision-making is crucial to ensuring that health officials can deliver the very best, targeted youth welfare interventions. This is especially important regarding access to services like mental health support. Examples of ways to hear from young people were shared at the policy forum, ranging from surveys and social media engagement to direct engagement with marginalized young people and the inclusion of youth groups in the policy process itself.
A need for youth-specific health interventions
Behavioural and cultural approaches to health and health behaviour provide insights into the needs of young people, and identify where governments have fallen short. Young people behave differently and perceive risk differently than other age groups and thus must be approached with original, bespoke measures. It is now time to use these lessons learned constructively, not just in the coronavirus pandemic response but across all areas of health.
Efforts to involve young people in the pandemic response and to engage with their unique needs have already been undertaken across the European Region. In Belgium and Kazakhstan, social media platforms like Instagram have been utilized to communicate pandemic measures and to receive feedback from young people themselves. The practical value of youth participation has been felt acutely in the Republic of Moldova, where youth organizations play a key role in decision-making processes at national level, using an online government platform to make sure their voices are heard. Likewise, in Sweden, efforts are being made to collaborate with influencers and ambassadors, as well as youth organizations at national level.
Mental health services have also been of paramount concern across the European Region, with mental health hotlines and crisis centre networks strengthened in the Czech Republic, and the launch of peer-to-peer systems to help young people find mental health support in Slovakia.
Planning for the future
The Policy Forum was therefore a vital opportunity for countries to pool expertise and resources, including perspectives from young people present at the forum, on how to improve youth well-being. A key takeaway from the Forum was the need to involve young people, and youth strategy, in emergency preparedness measures for future pandemics, recognizing the critical role young people have played throughout the COVID-19 crisis.
This has been particularly notable in the way young people complied with lockdown measures that have been especially life-saving for older generations, despite the more limited threat of coronavirus to themselves. Insights gathered throughout the pandemic could also inform future responses to other health issues affecting young people, such as smoking and alcohol consumption.
Committing to youth involvement
Dr Kluge emphasized three core priority areas for public health engagement with youth following the pandemic: first, health officials and governments must invite young people to the table, ensuring they also have a say in which other groups are engaged; second, the health sector must reach out beyond young people in political parties or in medicine and talk to groups across society, particularly to more vulnerable young people; and third, we must recognize that young people are already involved in community groups and campaigns, trying to make a better world.
There will be ongoing challenges for young people, and many of the impacts may only be felt when the European Region steps out of the pandemic. Ensuring that significant support is provided for young people and their wider social groups will be a crucial plank in all pandemic recovery measures.
The Policy Forum on Behavioural and Cultural Insights was established in 2020 to facilitate discussion between countries about the COVID-19 pandemic response and has been running regularly since December last year. The event was organized by the WHO European Region’s Behavioural and Cultural Insights unit and Emergencies Programme.