As Scotland entered phase one of its ‘route map” out of the coronavirus crisis last Thursday, the excitement of taking even the smallest of steps towards normality was accompanied by a degree of apprehension.
Would the country undo the positive work that had already been done in containing the virus by taking the eased restrictions as unbridled freedom?
Over the weekend, social media was littered with gatherings. At her daily briefing on Monday afternoon, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon felt compelled to address the young people of Scotland.
“I want to say directly to young people – this virus can still be very harmful to you. Even if you yourself are not adversely affected, you can still pass the virus onto other young people, including your friends, and then some of them of course may pass it on to others, including parents and grandparents, who are at a greater risk of becoming seriously ill,” Ms Sturgeon said.
As someone who admittedly felt frustrated at the images of friends congregating in large groups in the sunshine, I decided to try and gain an understanding of why young people decided to break the rules when the health of the country is still in such a precarious position.
Posting on my Snapchat story, I asked anyone who had met their friends to get in touch and explain why they decided to do it and how they felt about it retrospectively.
More than 20 young people got in touch with me to talk about why they broke the rules, and all of them expressed guilt of varying degrees.
For some, their reasons for ignoring the new guidelines were fairly simple.
“A lot of us just can’t be arsed with lockdown anymore and seeing loads of other groups meeting just encourages it, because if no one else is following the rules then why should we?” a 19-year-old male said.
For others, there was a more serious element.
A student in her 20s brought up one of the key issues of the period of lockdown.
“For a few girls in my group, seeing their pals keeps them going, and when they don’t see people, or have things to do, their mental health gets bad. I definitely think mental health plays a big part in all of it,” she said.
Another young man admitted to meeting his friends throughout lockdown, even before restrictions were eased last week. His long-term relationship had come to an end, and he felt that he needed to be around his friends in order to stay positive and to distract himself from constantly thinking about his breakup.
It’s important that during the pandemic, mental health isn’t forgotten or disregarded. Scotland has the highest suicide rate in the UK, with the statistics released for 2018 showing a 50% increase in suicides in the 15-24 age category.
Social media can be often be found at the root of mental health issues for young people, but the same 19-year-old male quoted earlier believes that it also played an integral role in young people meeting up last weekend.
“Before the changing of the rules, it wasn’t socially acceptable in the slightest to be meeting people…I think people didn’t want to get slagged off on social media, but now they feel free to do what they want without being judged.”
A point that came up on multiple occasions was the idea that we may never find a vaccine, and for that reason we’re going to have to “learn to live with it.”
A recently graduated student said, “The virus isn’t something that’s just going to disappear…If we’re trying to get back to normal civilisation, we will kind of have to learn to live with it.”
After spending the weekend with friends without observing social distancing measures, the potential consequences of this mindset is now playing heavily on the mind of one student from up north.
“I would feel so awful if I passed anything on to my grandparents…but now I’m terrified to go and see them and keep doing their shopping, so I’m not sure it was worth it,” she said.
On the Snapchat post, I also encouraged people who had chosen not to meet with their friends to get in touch and explain how it felt to see so many people gathering and not following the guidelines.
“I think it’s disrespectful to NHS staff. They’ve been doing all the work and some of them have died doing their job. Then as soon as some of the rules have been relaxed everyone’s out like the virus is completely gone,” a young man said.
I spoke to a student nurse who echoed this sentiment.
“What is the point in people mobbing beaches and parks when healthcare workers are putting their and their families’ lives at risk…I know many people who are working with COVID patients directly and they’re having to isolate themselves from their family in their own homes which is obviously horrible for them. Whereas selfish people are hosting parties and are completely oblivious to the dangers of what they’re doing,” she said.
It is important that the guilt felt by those who flouted the rules is channelled in a positive manner. It should give a deeper understanding of the challenges we face and how we can combat them, as opposed to encouraging people to double down and persist in ignoring the guidelines.
Young people are thinking about how to live alongside this virus for a long time in a climate of social media pressure and a sad record on mental health.
As always, people should do their upmost to look after their mental health over the course of the pandemic. Considering how this can be done in a way that sticks to the guidelines as closely as possible ensures that while people’s mental wellbeing is being maintained, so is the physical wellbeing of themselves and others.
We all must adapt to a new way of living, and it is imperative that mental health support becomes more dynamic and imaginative in order to reflect the changes in society.
The disconnect between young people’s actions and the potential ramifications for them can be bridged through more detailed and nuanced discussion. Being fully aware of how the continued presence of the virus could affect them physically, socially, and economically will resonate with young people far more profoundly.
When looking at the coronavirus crisis, and other world events dominating press coverage, it is apparent that the time for unity, solidarity, and self-reflection has perhaps never been more necessary.
Young people stepping up to face these challenges, without the fear of being judged by their peers or by society, can only help in making the world healthier, safer, and fairer.