COVID, study and your career: coping with uncertainty about the future

People in Australia aged between 18 and 24 have been among the hardest hit by many aspects of the pandemic. Whether you’re returning to study or recently graduated, dealing with another COVID-affected year may present new challenges. Learn why that’s not unexpected and what you can do to support your mental health.

People in Australia aged between 18 and 24

While the mental health impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic have been significant for so many, research shows that people in Australia aged between 18 and 24 have been particularly affected.

One in two young Australians surveyed for a University of New South Wales (UNSW) report last year said their mental health was worse because of the pandemic, with rates of depression and anxiety surging among that age group.  

Clinical psychologist Emily Upton worked on the UNSW report and says the disruption that 18- to 24-year-olds experienced is one explanation for its findings.

“Everything from their social life and their studies to what they imagined their tertiary education experience would be like – and their future hopes and plans – was disrupted,” says Upton. “And the casual and part-time work they often rely on was really affected, too.”

Statistics reflect that. One in three workers aged 18 to 24 lost their jobs at the height of the pandemic. Half of those who kept their jobs had their hours cut, as the industries that young people often work in were significantly impacted.

Looking to tomorrow and beyond

We might be further away than ever from the initial impacts of coronavirus, but Upton says the effects continue to echo forward, particularly for young people.

“There was already pressure for this age group around what their futures would look like,” says Upton. “But I think the pandemic has added even more economic anxiety, and some young people may even be working towards qualifications in industries that might seem quite uncertain now.”

Experience from the past few years may also trigger more immediate concerns. Such as uncertainty around the security of their work, what study will look like, or whether housemates are able to pay their share of rent.

As in-person and larger-group interactions ramp up with the return to university or TAFE, young people may also feel nervous about the increase in social interactions with peers, or anxiety around catching COVID.

Taking care of your mental health

The following suggestions may help you stay mentally well as you navigate the next few months and beyond.

Allow yourself to feel your feelings

“If you’re worried or feeling uncertain right now, that’s really normal,” says Upton. “Simply recognising that, and knowing it’s okay, can make a difference.”

Differentiate between what you can and can’t control

“When we’re feeling really stressed or anxious, it’s often because we’re worrying about things that are outside of our control. For example, worrying about what’s going to happen in your industry or whether there’ll be a new variant of the virus can create a lot of stress because you can’t actually do anything about it.”

Writing down what you’re worrying about and then acknowledging which things are within your control (and which aren’t) can help you feel less overwhelmed.

“And work out a plan to tackle or achieve those things you can control, so you can keep working towards a goal regardless of what happens around you.”

Make connecting a daily habit

“The number one buffer against stress and poor mental health is social connection.”

Upton suggests you try to make time every day to have some kind of meaningful connection with someone.

“Reaching out might be the last thing you feel like doing if you’re struggling, but even something small, like exchanging a couple of texts with a friend or family member, can help you feel connected.”

Nurture a healthy routine

Day-to-day routines can play a big part in staying mentally well.

Upton advises that “it’s not about being perfect – it’s just about making small changes and choices that all add up.”

She says it can help to be conscious of:

Access mental health help if you need it

While this may be talking to a GP or seeing a psychologist (either face-to-face or via phone or video), Upton notes that there are a number of other options available to you.

These include:

  • accessing one of the services offered by headspace, which specifically caters for young people aged up to 25.
  • making use of the support services provided by your TAFE or university
  • enquiring about your workplace’s Employee Assistance Program.

“For people who aren’t ready or are waiting to speak to someone, there are also some effective evidence-based online courses to help manage a range of mental health difficulties you may be experiencing because of the pandemic.”


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