Young women are feeling the effects of the pandemic on their mental health more strongly than their male counterparts, according to a new survey of young Canadians.
The study, conducted by Pollara Strategic Insights for the Prosperity Project, an organization working to mitigate the pandemic’s effects on women, found more than half of Canadian youth said negative feelings had increased during the pandemic, with 63 per cent of young women reporting higher or much higher levels of anxiety, depression and stress, compared with 46 per cent of young men.
The stress among young women is exacerbated by the career challenges that have emerged during the pandemic, the survey indicates. One in five said they’ve halted their education because of family responsibilities and one in three said their employment plans were hurt.
The online survey asked 937 young Canadians, between the ages of 16 and 29, about a variety of topics including mental health, school, work and money. Young women were found to be worse off than young men in most categories.
“I think what we’re seeing is a result of their world being turned upside down,” said Pamela Jeffery, the founder of the Prosperity Project, who is working to ensure Canadian women are not left behind in the COVID-19 recovery.
“It’s such an important time in the life of a young man and a young woman, as they’re finishing high school and preparing for postsecondary. Now, they feel socially isolated,” Ms. Jeffery said.
One reason for the stress might be owing to employment challenges. The pandemic recession, sometimes called the “she-cession,” has disproportionately affected women, who are more likely to be employed in sectors affected most by the pandemic, such as service and health care, and who often have the added responsibility of caring for children or family members.
Indeed, 21 per cent of women said they were not continuing their education at this time because of family responsibilities, compared with just 4 per cent of male respondents. Twice as many young women as men surveyed consider government-funded child care a priority for the federal government.
The study found a third of respondents had their employment plans affected by the pandemic, with about 23 per cent saying they were unable to find a job and 15 per cent opting not to take a job because of COVID-19. Indeed, young people felt the federal government’s top priority should be on job recovery and improving the economy.
Eleanore Mackie, 27, is among those whose plans changed last spring. The recent art history graduate had landed a potentially career-changing, year-long internship at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, originally planned in September, 2020. However, the opportunity was cancelled as coronavirus case counts rose and borders closed.
“It was the biggest internship in my life, and then it was gone,” Ms. Mackie said.
More than a year later, she has yet to find a job in her field. Ms. Mackie said the pressure to find full-time work after moving back home to Ottawa has left her feeling much more stress and anxiety than usual.
“I work in a field that was so heavily impacted by the pandemic, and I felt so stressed that I wondered if I should even be in the field anymore. I actually did start applying for tech firms instead, but it wasn’t actually what I wanted to be doing. I felt I had to support myself financially, but I was stressed, but I was giving up my dreams and like who I actually was,” Ms. Mackie said.
Another reason for added stress is social isolation. Ms. Jeffery attributes young women’s higher stress levels to their more social nature.
“Young women are such social creatures, and their friendships are so important to them. The stress is even higher for 16- and 17-year-olds. They’ve been out of the classroom, have missed their graduations. I hear from young women who feel that they’ve been socially isolated, and I think that’s been really, really difficult for them,” she said.
Wanting to be extra cautious around her parents, Ms. Mackie refrained from seeing friends, leaving her feeling lonely. With many friends living outside the city, she said she felt like she didn’t have a support circle with which to share her worries. Meanwhile, making comparisons on social media – with friends partying or celebrating new jobs – worsened her mood.
“I started feeling like I really didn’t have any friends. Even now, I’m struggling because a lot of my friends are far away and it can be hard to find time to go on a Zoom call,” Ms. Mackie said. “It’s stressful trying to find the energy to keep up friendships.”
Now, Ms. Mackie has sought out a therapist and is in the final stages of a job application process at a museum here in Canada. She hopes by sharing her experience, she can help young people feel less alone.
“I’m just trying to step outside of my little bubble of fear and move toward being more confident and courageous.”
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