Young Australians living through COVID lockdowns last year struggled deeply with their mental health and believe extra help is needed in schools to support student wellbeing, a new report says.

Mission Australia’s latest youth survey report examined the experiences of over 18,000 15 to 19 year olds between April and August 2020, when impacts of the pandemic were felt across the country.

For those who said COVID-19 was their biggest issue in 2020, the experience of isolation and the pandemic’s impact on their education and mental health were identified as top concerns.

Young people living in Victoria – which endured an extended lockdown last year – made up 40 per cent of those most concerned by COVID, while 17-year-olds were most likely to be worried about their education.

One 17-year-old Victorian reflected on her challenges dealing with mental health and depression during COVID.

“Our school is not doing enough in terms of accounting for the abnormal state of the world when it comes to setting assessments – I have never felt so simultaneously stressed and unmotivated,” she said.

“There has been an extreme lack of allowances for COVID and online learning so I am consistently stressed about school – on top of being stressed about the world.”

A 17-year-old from New South Wales expressed feelings of anxiety that have gripped many young people during the pandemic.

She said she felt her anxiety had been “the worst it has ever been”.

“Being a year 12 student as well as the effects of quarantine in losing time with my friends and being laid off in my job I’ve experienced significant levels of stress,” she said. “I just feel anxious all the time.”

Mission Australia’s CEO James Toomey said the findings made clear the breadth and depth of the toll that COVID-19 has had on young Australians.

Amid NSW’s ongoing extended lockdown, Toomey said it was clear the pandemic was far from over.

“With lockdowns and tighter restrictions recently triggered in response to COVID-19, we must take heed of what young people told us about their experiences and solutions in 2020,” Toomey said.

“We are very concerned that the impact of this virus will continue to have flow-on effects on young people’s lives now, and their futures.

“To best support our young people and mitigate any negative consequences they may face due to the pandemic, we must begin by listening to them and ensure that the right supports and systems are in place.”

Young people put forward several solutions in the report that Mission Australia said should be considered by authorities.

They include providing extra support for young people in schools to support their wellbeing in their final years of study, and offering mental health prevention and early intervention supports for those in isolation who feel disconnected from their usual networks.

Young people also said they needed resources to help them identify when they needed support in the first place.

Toomey said some state governments were already taking action, noting that NSW has recently extended the Stay Healthy HSC Hub partnership with ReachOut, which offers students access to 24-hour mental health and wellbeing support.

But he said more must be done.

“Despite various levels of government investing in mental health, there are still large gaps in the mental health system that have been laid bare by COVID-19 – particularly for those who are vulnerable or marginalised,” he said.

“From the get-go, governments, services and organisations should prioritise engaging young people to design solutions that will best support them at this crucial time in their lives, backed with relevant and current evidence.”

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