Stopping the spread of the novel coronavirus, opening schools and reigniting the economy is job one for President Joe Biden and his administration. However, long after the virus is contained, and students are back in school, the residues of this pandemic will remain etched as stains upon America’s youth. What we do today will determine the fate of a generation whose spirit, hope, and energy are in danger of being forever lost.
The quantifiable consequences for young Americans already are beginning to appear. A generation of young people has been cut off from the socialization that is vital to their transition from adolescence to young adulthood. Millions have been isolated from friends, routine activities, and the traditions of high school or college.
With schools, teachers, and counselors at a distance too many children, especially impoverished or unhoused, may never recover the ground they have lost in attaining critical educational milestones. After a year of near isolation, impressionable adolescents have missed traditional passages and are left in their absence with a sense of emptiness, even despondency.
Rising suicide, loneliness and stress
Some of the recent statistics truly are frightening. Suicides — deaths of despair — are on the rise and remain the second leading cause of mortality for youths aged 10-24. People of color are among the most vulnerable to suicidal ideation. Requests for crisis counseling from the government’s Disaster Distress Helpline increased from 1,790 requests in April 2019 to 20,000 requests a year later — an increase of more than 1,000%.
College students are feeling stressed and alone. Faculty members too often discuss exhausted students who go missing from class after helping a friend in crisis. Students often report that they feel their situation is hopeless, that they feel overwhelmed, that they are so depressed that it is difficult to function, that at times they are overwhelmed with anxiety. In a national survey by Hobsons and Hanover Research, 68% of college students said COVID-19 has “somewhat” or “very” negatively impacted their mental health.
Another alarming statistic: In the fall of 2020, community college enrollment, the career access point for millions of Americans, declined by 9.4% nationwide compared to the previous year. That’s a loss of more than 600,000 students.
Students getting tested before moving into residence halls at West Virginia State University, on July 31, 2020.
Paralleling this is a downward spiral of students who are the first in their families to apply to a four-year college or university, coupled with a decline in low-income applicants at the same time some leading academic institutions are seeing a surge in applications from those in more stable situations. To receive federal financial aid, new students must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form. As of Jan. 29, 2021, completed applications are down 9.7% compared to the same period last year.
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As a former university leader, I find this truly heartbreaking. Colleges and universities across the U.S., including mine, have worked diligently to expand access to low-income and first-generation students with the goal of increasing job and career mobility for millions of Americans. Now, despite these efforts, large numbers of lower-income students may not attend any type of college at all.
Student loan debt, limited job prospects, tensions and polarized conflicts in our society and our politics, cybercrime, conspiracy theories, friends slipping into screen addi, or worse, opioid addiction — this is the landscape of our children’s lives. Accentuated by the fear and isolation imposed by a pandemic, these problems can seem like an unconquerable nightmare.
Epic world events leave scars
We have seen the lifelong effects of epic world events before. The psycho-social scars inflicted by World War I coupled with the 1918-20 influenza pandemic left too many citizens aimless and uncertain, their faith in the old order shaken. Dubbed “the Lost Generation” by author Gertrude Stein, their continuous search for direction was reflected in the works of Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and others.
What lasting effects will the pandemic of 2020-21 have on a generation of young people who have become the tragic victims of circumstances far beyond their control? Will today’s stressed youth, still reeling from a pandemic, become the next Lost Generation?
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These initial statistics are the ill canary in the nation’s coal mine, warning us that, unless Congress acts decisively now, the financial, educational, and psycho-social impacts of the pandemic may be barriers to economic mobility that many young people will never overcome – expanding the ranks for those who are confronting poverty, destitution, racism, and crippling inequality.
Immediate bold action is imperative; waiting will only make matters worse. Without the critical investment proposed by the Biden administration, the long-term costs to the nation will be far more than a few trillion dollars; it will be the loss of a generation.
Scott A. Bass is a professor and provost emeritus at American University’s School of Public Affairs, and executive director of AU’s Center for University Excellence.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: COVID economic and mental health impact may damage young people forever