Uncertainty has been one of the most challenging hallmarks of COVID-19 for Year 12 student Olivia Condon.
- COVID-19 creates pressure cooker conditions for HSC students
- Self-harm and suicidal thoughts have increased up to 40 per cent among young people
- But examples of resilience and concern for others are emerging
During the hours spent in online lessons, the 17-year-old found it impossible to stop her mind from worrying about the future.
“I felt really anxious, thinking ‘Am I going to get a bad mark, when are we going back to school?’,” she said.
She is one of thousands of high school students across the country dealing with a global pandemic while preparing for the most important exams of their young lives.
Youth workers say instances of self-harm and suicidal thoughts have risen significantly among young people in recent months.
While some students have remained resilient, the upheaval has prompted calls for education providers to focus more on wellbeing than marks.
Anxiety over the unknown
For Olivia, the low point came shortly after she stopped going to classes in early April.
She also worried about classmates with difficult home lives.
“The only thing that kept them going was school and seeing their friends, so COVID had such a negative impact for them,” she said.
Mental health ‘nightmare’
The coronavirus outbreak has caused an unprecedented increase in demand for mental health support services for young people.
The Kids Helpline reported a 40 per cent rise in demand for counselling services in March.
Project Youth supports at-risk young people in Sydney’s south with crisis accommodation, employment, and respite from troubles at home.
Operations manager Kevin Crowe said the amount of young people needing assistance had never been greater, with referrals coming from as far away as Victoria.
“It’s been a nightmare to be honest,” he said.
“We’ve had an increase in referrals, especially for kids under 16 who are not able to stay at home — it’s quite frightening actually.”
Despite efforts to provide online tutoring, Mr Crowe said many students trying to complete their secondary education will drop out due to complications caused by COVID-19.
“They’re falling through the gaps, which is very sad,” he said.
It’s an escalation that did not surprise Will Stubley from Year 13, an organisation that helps young people transition from school to adult life.
In recent months, his staff have been inundated with concerned students looking for clarity in their final year.
Mr Stubley said the focus on academia in the final years of high school forced an unhealthy amount of pressure onto young people.
Evidence of resilience
Despite the upheaval, there are signs that students are learning to better support each other.
Year 12 student Jakub Kamen said the time away from school had taught him the value of reaching out to those who were struggling.
“I definitely noticed more people have been down in the dumps, so I would check on a few people, ask how they were going,” he said.
Olivia said she had also been more emotionally open with her classmates.
“Since being at home I’ve found it so important to check up on people, even if you didn’t talk to them much before,” she said.
“It’s been a positive response, I’ve made friends with people I wouldn’t necessarily be close with before.”
Students first, marks second
It was a pleasing response for Mr Stubley, who hoped that COVID-19 shutdowns would reinforce the importance of student welfare over marks.
“School helps young people become an independent contributor to society and that has come much more to the fore now,” he said.
“That should be the focus anyway.”