Mental wellbeing in a time of COVID: The voices of young women around the world

Adolescent girls and young women are telling us that they are experiencing mental pressure, anxiety and fear due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has severely disrupted livelihoods, access to health care and adequate nutrition as well as causing a near halt in education for many women, especially in low- and middle-income countries. These circumstances have had a serious impact on their mental wellbeing. In this blog Isabel Quilter and Ellie Taylor explore data generated by Hear Her Voice – a Girl Effect project that followed the stories of 29 young women in India, Bangladesh, Rwanda, Nigeria, USA and Malawi. These women are employed as part of Girl Effect’s TEGA programme. TEGA is a girl-operated digital research tool, that trains adolescent girls and young women to be digital researchers. 

A recent report from Plan International found that 90% of the 7000 women and girls studied were affected by anxiety due to the pandemic. And the UN has warned of a mental health crisis alongside the physical threat of COVID-19.

As well as anxiety about themselves or their loved ones contracting COVID-19 and receiving false or conflicting information around the virus, young women and girls are affected by deep uncertainty for their futures, as their education pauses and only those with the resources and capabilities are able to participate. In past crises, many girls and young women never returned to school due to issues such as increased domestic responsibilities and teenage pregnancy.

I am feeling like a prisoner because girls of my age generally don’t stay at home due to college, job, or tuition, they go out of their home but due to lockdown, they are not able to come out.

Alishba from India

Hear Her Voice

For this project, rather than interviewing peers, we asked them to turn the camera on themselves. Over six weeks, the TEGAs used video diaries as a space to discuss their thoughts and feelings, describe what they saw around them and discuss hopes and fears for the future. The data gives valuable insight into the emotional journey adolescent girls and young women experienced during lockdown and beyond and how they learned to cope and find unexpected opportunities.

Mental Pressure

The TEGAs began recording in May, amid strict social distancing measures or full lockdowns. They reported feelings of helplessness, anxiety and fear as the number of COVID-19 positive cases escalated. 

There was an immediate need for reliable information to tackle confusion and anxiety, as Nura from Nigeria notes:

There’s so much information going out and it’s hard to keep track of which one is authentic and which one is not…If girls can have, if everyone actually, can have a medium of getting authentic information – I don’t know if that’s possible because every day you hear this and that on social media on the radio on the TV, there’s always news and it can get really overwhelming sometimes.

Nura from Nigeria

TEGAs fear themselves or their loved ones getting sick

Anxiety is commonly reported when it comes to the young womens’ feelings about the spread of the pandemic. Their anxiety was often triggered by the news and social media. The need to be prepared with knowledge was an important defence, but concerns over distinguishing factual information made this a flawed coping mechanism for some. Merci from Malawi describe this feeling of fear and panic:

If I hear of the pandemic, the first thought that I get to have is death. Because I have seen videos with people having difficulties in breathing. My thoughts are like, ”If I catch this virus, will I survive? will my immunity fight against this virus?” I am always filled with fear and worries…

Merci from Malawi

Fears of illness death compounded by constant worries about a lack of money

Being out of work, having to rely on savings and worrying about food insecurity have taken a large toll on the mental wellbeing of some of the young women in the group. Rafi, from Bangladesh, shared hers and her family’s experiences in not being able to meet their nutritional needs:

So, in the case if we are not getting an adequate amount of food, or we are not getting all types of food, we can eat only the essential food: rice and pulses; we are barely surviving on it.

Rafi from Bangladesh

Mental burden is placed on young women in worrying about their futures

Limited access to education was an issue of concern among the young women, and one of the few instances where they showed more concern for their own welfare than those around them. Losing out on education now is predicted to have a massive impact on many of these women’s future educational and work prospects. Emma in the USA was immediately unsure of her future:

At the moment I’m debt free for college. And I would like it to stay that way, but I’m not sure if I can. And that is really really stressful…not knowing if I can finish the degree I’ve started.

Emma from the USA

Feelings of loneliness and frustration due to a lack of social interaction

Shiyona from India echoes many other young women in the study in lamenting the loss of social interactions, not something that can be fully replaced by online communication:

We are in touch with the friends and talk to each other through online chat, WhatsApp calls or normal calls but still we feel the loneliness as there are many things which we want to share with friends which we are unable to share or gossip that makes me disturbed. Since the last two days my mood is completely off due to this.

Shiyona from India

Mental pressure manifested in different ways

From struggling to keep busy to sleeping all day, the girls described how their moods changed and they had good days and bad days. Nishi from Bangladesh expresses her frustration:

Sometimes…I feel really weird! I cannot say it in words. Nothing feels good! I cannot concentrate on anything! I try to keep myself busy, I read books. I read a lot of novels, literature. I watch TV. Give time to my younger brother. Still…after a while, I feel bad. This is what happens!

Nishi from Bangladesh

Jessie from the USA struggles with having bad days when she doesn’t feel like doing anything. She is considering the idea of seeing a specialist as she suspects she might have depression. She thinks, however, her cultural background prevents her from doing so.

In my culture they don’t really believe in that kind of stuff and are not very supportive of it so I don’t want to put myself in that kind of situation.

Jessie from the USA

The destructiveness of the pandemic for these young women should not be understated

The young women described being crippled by the uncertainty of the situation, uncertainty that they would not return to education, that they would be able to earn and support their families and even the uncertainty that they could recover from the disease or be prepared with a vaccine. Emma from the USA sums up the enormity of the impacts the pandemic has had on her:

This virus has taken a lot from us… it has taken our futures.

Emma from the USA

Coping and Resilience

As we followed the young women week after week, after a few weeks of describing feeling overwhelmed by fear and feelings of helplessness and uncertainty, the young women started to talk about the things they had learned about themselves, their strategies to cope, and the positive things they found in their lives during this time.

Simple strategies to help feelings of unease

Activities such as journaling and sharing feelings with friends online were reported as some ways that these young women would try to cope. Nishi in Bangladesh describes the breathing exercise that she employed to cope with her feelings:

I was feeling kind of imprisoned and frustrated. Couldn’t concentrate on anything – studies, household works – nothing…What I did was start taking deep breaths with my eyes closed. Closing my eyes like this…So I breathed like this for 10 minutes or maybe more. So after spending some time in solitude…I started to see that my bad feelings are starting to go away. I returned to my original state.

Nishi from Bangladesh

Family helps many of young women get through this time

While it was common for the young women to report arguments or tension in the house, it was equally as common for them to speak of their family as support networks. As Habiba from Nigeria notes:

What is helping is staying at home with my family. We talk, we laugh together, we do everything together and that makes me very very happy. And that makes me cope with all the fear and the stress I am going through. Staying together with family members all the time makes me feel safe and comfortable.

Habiba from Nigeria

Hobbies, skills and vocations are coping mechanisms

Many young women spoke about positive changes in their life that they were making to cope with both physical realities they were going through, for example in learning a new skill that they could use to make money for their family now or in the future. They expressed the positive mental impact this has also had on their wellbeing. One example of this is Ononna in Bangladesh:

I had very little sewing skills but in the last few months, in the last few days or weeks, I have already started making clothes by learning from a neighbour. And I have learned a good skill – now I know how to make clothes. And I am making clothes for people nearby. And I am earning an amount of money which is my own livelihood to make a contribution to the family.

Ononna from Bangladesh

Nova in Rwanda has also managed to find work that will help her now and in the future, but she expresses concern that this is not the case for many around her:

Some people didn’t have savings and they are now struggling to live because they don’t have work and have no other sources of income. I managed to work on a project of poultry farming so that I can develop myself with what I will earn, buy what I need and develop my working methods.

Nova from Rwanda

Young women are finding ways to cope with the mental pressures triggered by the physical realities around them

The young women who took part were unanimously positive about having been given a platform to speak honestly about their lived experience of lockdown, what they were going through and what they needed. The project itself was seen as helpful for their mental wellbeing by giving them a space to share. Karen in the USA described a sense of community:

I imagine I am just speaking to a community of girls, who and feel and do much of the things that I do…These videos would help them not feel alone, that they are not alone

Karen from the USA

As much as this project told us a story about the resilience and resolve of young women during this global crisis, young women and girls are living precarious lives and need the support of policy makers and NGOs to listen and provide needs based support for their mental health needs. Shiyona in India asked for their stories to be shared as widely as possible to highlight gaps in the COVID-19 response and beyond:

I would like you to share these things with other organisations at a higher-level because so far everyone feels that everything is going very smoothly. And during the lockdown, everyone is getting all things easily, everybody is being taken care of well but in reality, nothing is like that and perhaps the smaller community haven’t raised their voices against this…

Shiyona from India

Follow the girls stories here https://voices.girleffect.org/

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