The linkages between COVID, Loneliness, Mental Health and Justice amongst young people

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covid mental effect in young people

One of the consistent stories coming out of COVID is concern for the mental health of young people[1].  There is consensus the mental health of many adolescents and young people is suffering.  Suffering that is compounded by over-stretched mental health services that cannot keep up with the numbers.

It is easy to write of mental health is general, however one of the specific issues impacting young people’s mental health is the diminishing sense of social identity.[2]

Social identity is the sense of self we derive from the social groups we belong to, such as our friendship, community, religious, and interest groups.[3]  For young people the sense of belonging to a group or groups beyond the family groups is essential as part of their transition from the immediate family network towards adulthood.

The data from Australia Talks survey indicates that due to COVID and the lockdowns people’s membership of groups has declined dramatically.[4]

When we lose our sense of social identity we are at greater risk of loneliness.  A recent report prepared for the Victorian Health Promotion Foundation seeks to understand loneliness in adolescence and young adulthood.[5]  Although this study looks at the prevalence of loneliness in adolescents and young adults residing in Victoria, the general themes apply nationally.

The study defines loneliness as “a set of aversive feelings that arise when there is a discrepancy between desired and actual social relationships”[6] When COVID impacts on the ability of young people to connect to social groups, then the discrepancy between their desire to connect to social groups and their actual ability to do so can lead to a greater loneliness.

While the solution would appear to be an increase in the number of social contacts available to young people, it is not that simple.  There is a difference between loneliness and being socially isolated.  A young person can be socially isolated but not lonely and in reverse a young person can be socially connected yet feel very isolated, as in the case of many young people who are part of a minority ethnic community.    


Loneliness is not something a young person can necessarily “just get over” because of the link between loneliness and poorer mental health outcomes.  Studies have found that lonely adolescents and young adults have higher rates of depression, social anxiety, and increased alcohol consumption.[7]  Telling a lonely adolescent who has social anxiety to go out and make more friends is counter-productive and may only entrench the social anxiety further.

COVID and lockdowns are reducing the opportunities for young people to connect to social groups.  The incidence of loneliness is increasing, and this is impacting on young people’s mental health, particularly rates of depression and anxiety.

However, this is not just a medical or health issue there is a flow on from poor mental health outcomes and interaction with the justice system.  This link is acknowledged by the Australian Federal Parliament.

The links between mental health, offending behaviour, and alcohol and substance abuse were acknowledged by many who provided evidence to the Committee[8]

Furthermore, a meta-analysis of the prevalence of mental health issues among youth in detention found rates of psychosis 10 times those found in the general community (Fazel et al. 2008).[9]

It becomes like a closed circle.  COVID impacts a young person’s ability to connect to social groups, increasing their sense of loneliness and isolation.  Economic uncertainty adds to the loneliness and contributes to poorer mental health outcomes such as depression and anxiety.  In many cases alcohol and/or drugs are used to manage the depression and anxiety which increases the risk of interaction with the justice system.  Mental health issues are often exacerbated in the Justice system and when a young person has either completed their Court diversion program or is released from custody there are not the mental health services available to provide assistance.  So, the circle continues.

While additional youth mental health services are necessary, there is a further educative role for schools and families in assisting young people learn how to manage loneliness and anxiety before it gets to the clinical stage.

– Written by David Kernohan, Director of Youth Legal Services

[1] To understand young people’s mental health problems, we need to look at the economic and social triggers – ABC News

[2] ibid

[3] Ibid.

[4] ibid

[5] Dr. M. H. Lim; Dr. R. Eres, Ms. C.Peck; The young Australian Loneliness survey.  Understanding loneliness in adolescence and young adulthood. The Iverson Health Innovation Research Institute, and Centre for Mental Health, Swinburne University of Technology

[6] Ibid, p.5

[7] Ibid, p.6, 25

[8] Chapter 4 The link between health and the criminal justice system – Parliament of Australia (

[9] National data on the health of justice-involved young people: a feasibility study 2016–17 (full publication 14jun2018 edition) (AIHW)

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