As we move towards nationwide vaccination and we look forward to the end of the pandemic, we should take the time to think: what has 2020 meant for the emotional lives of young people? What does it mean for future forms of care and support?
When the UK entered its first lockdown in March 2020, it was clear that COVID-19 was not a great leveller. Once confined to our homes, it became immediately obvious who has and who hasn't got access to space, technology and internet to work and learn remotely.
It’s also now clear that Black and Asian groups face disproportionate risk from coronavirus and young people are amongst the hardest hit by social isolation and reduced income 
Talking to young people in Lambeth
At Innovation Unit, we spent a month listening to the lockdown stories of seven young people living in Lambeth, aged between 16 and 21, to understand how this period has affected their wellbeing and consider what might be put in place to support them.
We also worked with a team of local young researchers to help us ask the right questions and make sense of our findings, bringing in their own lived experiences to strengthen our insights.
Key themes for our young people were around barriers to, and uncertainty in, their transition to adulthood, and having their energy drained by a lack of basic safety and security. This was linked to difficulties at home, financial insecurity, and/ or to the racist structures and practices they encounter every day, brought into sharp focus by the Black Lives Matter protests.
Disconnection, uncertainty and insecurity
Despite living with lots of other people, our group felt lonely and disconnected. Often in overcrowded homes with complex familial relationships and caring responsibilities, there was little time or space to share how they were feeling. For one young woman with a parent in prison, an end to visitations because of COVID meant being cut off from her dad, and she felt responsible for her four younger siblings with whom she shared a small home.
As with many people their age, our group was concerned with: working towards qualifications; applying to or attending further and higher education; finding work and earning a wage; and finding somewhere to live.
These complex transitions were made more challenging by the pandemic and our young people experienced financial and institutional barriers to realising their next step. One sixth former missed her university place by one grade. School was reluctant to offer her a retake, and she felt it unlikely she would find a job because of COVID-19. More worrying, her mum said they would lose benefits if she isn’t in education which means they could become homeless.
We know that young people look for relationships and space outside of family and the home. Our group described how local urban regeneration has affected the places they felt they belonged. They described feeling excluded from local commercial spaces that have been gentrified and unable to make use of public space without feeling threatened or that they threatened people.
A key safe space for many young people is school. We heard how one young care leaver lives in shared accommodation with strangers who don’t acknowledge him. College is the place he describes as home. When college closed, he felt lost and shut off from opportunities to connect with others.
School outcomes disadvantage young people from poorer backgrounds. But when schools were closed, young people’s ability to engage with learning depended even more on whether they could access adequate space and resources at home. We heard stories of young people who felt ashamed about falling behind because they did not have access to a working laptop, or had to do work very late at night because there wasn’t enough space during the day.
For young people who are neurodiverse, a lack of specialist provision meant they were left to navigate the transition to online learning and socialising without the guidance of their teachers or peers. One 17 year-old with ADHD and autism described really struggling because there was no additional support from school for people who find virtual learning difficult.
In the midst of lockdown, a number of Black Lives Matter protests took place in London. It was a period of pain as well as reflection for our young people in Lambeth: a reminder of microaggressions, overt racism, and institutional disadvantages they had experienced at school and throughout their lives.
The young Black people we spoke to described routinely being treated as a threat or risk to protect society from, rather than people who also need protecting. This was felt in particular in relation to the police. One 20 year-old male reported that police presence was notable during the lockdown and appreciated the increased freedom and reduced risk of contact with the police when lockdown eased. A young woman described feeling really fearful for her mum and other Black family members working in the NHS, who faced increased exposure to the virus without access to enough PPE. She wanted her mum to stay home and be safe. Others were frustrated by the explicit blame placed on Black and Asian communities for the spread of the virus by people on social media.
For some of our group, lockdown was a period of enhanced creativity with more time to connect to a sense of purpose or invest in self-care rituals. The young people we spoke to tapped into their own spirituality and self-expression with the resources available to them. But we also heard stories of them being unable to: explore their passion for baking because of the cost of electricity; go online and connect with their friends; exercise due to a lack of space.
All the young people we spoke to were creative and determined. Those experiencing low mood, energy or negative emotions from the loss of peer support, safety from income and external spaces tended to seek and value mentorship, community connections and tapping into their own creativity rather than accessing mental health services.
Those young people already connected into social networks were better able to access other opportunities and emotional support. One 16 year-old had a mentor through church, was part of a Renaissance Foundation programme, was in a peer mentoring scheme, and got involved with an online STEM programme as well as with the Youth Advisory Programme at St Thomas among other commitments.
Making a change
Having listened to our group, we’ve outlined a set of recommendations for Lambeth, but indeed any authority, to build an inclusive and protective ecosystem of support for the mental and emotional wellbeing of young people. This includes safe spaces to find relief, practical help and resources to manage complex lives; and sustained relationships with peers or mentors to help navigate their highs and lows.
- Safe spaces and groups - A network of local safe spaces across the borough, either in tailored locations, or hosted by local organisations. There are different spaces which attend to different needs. Spaces are organised around hanging out and socialising; taking space and quiet time; hobbies and creative outlets; and connecting to others with shared experiences.
- A networked peer offer- A network of peer support offers a range of ways that young people can volunteer to support other young people in safe and supported roles and groups.There are different peer offers to meet the different life experiences of young people locally.
- A networked mentoring offer - A network of mentors of different ages and backgrounds, to listen and guide young people through good days and bad days. A mentor has attributes that are relatable to the young person they are supporting. They might have shared experiences of culture, race, religion, community, gender or sexuality.
- Practical help for navigating changes and next steps - Practical help is available to support young people as they experience transition. For young people looking ahead, skills workshops are on offer to grow young people's confidence in themselves and support them in their next step, whatever that might be.
- Digital and infrastructural resources for young people who are being left behind- Community provision of resources is enhanced to help overcome digital exclusion and the resources divide.This includes the provision of laptops, wifi plans and spaces offering the internet for young people without adequate space or resources to learn and connect.
As the world feels increasingly unequal and uncertain, young people need to be met where they are, in spaces that feel safe; connected to peers and adults they trust; provided with resources and mentorship that meet their needs and aspirations; supported to find meaning, express themselves and realise a future that feels right for them.
Daisy Carter is project co-ordinator at Innovation Unit