‘I felt like my insides were crying’: China’s COVID restrictions hit young people’s mental health

HONG KONG, Aug 30 (Reuters) – Zhang Meng had a breakdown last December. The 20-year-old found herself crying on the stairs of her dormitory, driven to despair by the repeated COVID lockdowns of her university campus in Beijing.

The lockdowns had meant she was mostly confined to her room and unable to meet up with friends. There were also strict restrictions on when she could visit the canteen or shower. Describing herself as someone who craves personal social interaction, Zhang said the restrictions had “removed the safety net that was holding me up, and I felt like my whole being was falling down.”

That month, she was diagnosed with major depression and anxiety.

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Yao, also 20 and who asked that his name not be used, had his first failure at the high school where he was a boarder, unable to understand why the lockdown policies were so harsh. He said he had to take refuge in a school toilet one day, crying so hard “it was like he was crying inside”.

In early 2021, while at university in Beijing, unable to shake off that depression and also unhappy that he had not taken the courses he wanted for fear of upsetting his father, Yao attempted suicide.

China has used some of the world’s toughest and most frequent lockdown measures in its determination to stamp out any outbreak of COVID, arguing that it saves lives and pointing to its low death toll from the pandemic of around 5,200 to today.

It’s an effort that has shown little sign of letting up, but the impact of politics on mental health alarms medical experts, and as Zhang and Yao’s experiences have shown, it’s already taking its toll.

“China’s lockdowns have had a huge human cost with the shadow of ill mental health negatively impacting China’s culture and economy for years to come,” argues a June editorial in the British medical journal The Lancet.

In particular, experts fear for the mental health of teenagers and young adults, more vulnerable because of their age and lack of control over their lives, and who must face far greater educational stresses and economic pressures than younger generations. previous.

The number of young people affected is potentially large. About 220 million Chinese children and youth have been locked out for long periods due to COVID restrictions, the Ministry of Education estimated in 2020. It did not respond to a Reuters request for an updated figure and comment on the topic.


COVID restrictions have sometimes forced young people into extreme situations.

During Shanghai’s draconian two-month lockdown this year, for example, some 15 to 18-year-olds had to isolate themselves in hotels after not being allowed to return home.

“They had to cook by themselves and had no people to talk to, so it was very difficult for them,” Frank Feng, vice principal at Lucton, an international school in Shanghai, told Reuters.

While data examining the mental health of young people in China and the impact of the lockdowns and pandemic are scarce, what does exist is grim.

About 20% of Chinese middle and high school students learning remotely during the lockdown have experienced suicidal ideation, according to a survey of 39,751 students conducted in April 2020 that was published in the US journal Current Psychology in January. Suicidal ideation is sometimes described as when a person thinks it would be better to die, although the person may not have the intention of committing suicide at the time.

More broadly across all age groups, searches for “psychological counseling” on Chinese search engine Baidu tripled in the first seven months of 2022 compared to the same period a year earlier.

For many teenagers, the lockdowns for COVID have come during critical exam years. If the stigma of being infected isn’t enough, the desperation to avoid missing a life-changing exam due to contracting COVID or, far more often, being considered a close contact has many families in isolation for months before periods. of exams, the teachers said.

Exacerbating this academic pressure are dismal job prospects. While overall unemployment stands at 5.4%, the rate for urban youth has risen to 19.9%, the highest level on record, as corporate hiring dries up due to the pandemic and regulatory crackdowns on the tech and tutoring sectors.

Most of the students are also only children due to China’s 1980-2015 one-child policy and are aware that they will have to help support their parents in the future.

According to a Fudan University survey of about 4,500 young people this year, about 70% expressed varying degrees of anxiety.

The pandemic and lockdowns are also thought to be fueling discontent with the intense pressure to get ahead in life, symbolized by the so-called “lying in the square” movement that last year gained traction on social media in China as many young people embraced the idea. and doing the minimum to get by.


For its part, the Ministry of Education has launched a series of measures to improve mental health for students during the pandemic, including the introduction of mandatory mental health classes in colleges and an effort to increase the number of school counselors, therapists and psychiatrists in place.

But mental health has gained attention in China only in the past 20 years, and the ministry’s efforts to install counselors in schools are relatively new. Most schools wouldn’t have one last year. The guidelines he released in June 2021 call for a ratio of at least 1 counselor per 4,000 students statewide.

Even the state media have taken up this topic.

A June 6 article in China Daily, which focused on the mental health impact of the containment of COVID on vulnerable groups, including teenagers, quoted Lu Lin, president of Peking University’s Sixth Hospital, as saying that “the degree of COVID on people’s mental health can last more than two decades.” .

Data from early 2020 showed that a third of homebound residents had experienced conditions such as depression, anxiety and insomnia, he said.

Lu estimated that most would recover after an outbreak subsided, but 10% would not be able to fully return to normal, noting that he had teenage patients who had developed gaming addictions, had trouble sleeping and continued to be desperate and reluctant to come out.

For Zhang, the blockages and her subsequent depression have completely destroyed her worldview. Once satisfied with her plans to study Chinese language and literature, frustration with the way the blockages have been managed has sparked an interest in studying abroad.

“I was pretty patriotic when I graduated high school…that feeling is slowly disappearing. It’s not that I don’t trust the government anymore, it’s more a feeling that the smell of masks and sanitizer has seeped deep into my bones.”

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Reporting by Farah Master in Hong Kong and Xiaoyu Yin in Beijing; Additional reporting by Casey Hall in Shanghai and Kiki Lo in Hong Kong; Editing by Edwina Gibbs

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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