The Terrible Toll of COVID Loneliness (and the Clear Catholic Answer)

In addition to the health toll of the COVID-19 pandemic, the closing of schools and the shutting down of various activities had a devastating effect on teens’ mental health. An April CDC report suggests that the pandemic left millions of American teens suffering, mentally, and led more than 800,000 to seriously consider suicide.

Prophetically, Pope Francis wrote an encyclical — 2020’s Fratelli Tutti, “On Fraternity and Social Friendship” — which warned that this might happen, and urged Christians to counteract it.

Community is a crucial factor for teens.

The numbers are alarming: 1 in 3 U.S. high school students reported poor mental health. More than 2 out of 5 felt “sad or hopeless.” And 1 in 5 (19.9%) seriously considered suicide. The problems were worse with those who had no friends — and less than half of teens surveyed said they felt close to people in school.

UVA psychology professor Joseph Allen has studied teens for decades and shows how friendships set teens up for success later in life. He says parents too easily dismiss teens’ obsession with popularity. “There’s a reason for that intense focus, which is young people are learning how to manage relationships that are going to ultimately determine how they fare for the rest of their lives, and they sense that in their bones,” he said.

The CDC report says teen girls were hit the hardest, and in her article “Teen Girls Aren’t Going to Forget” Bari Weiss collects the sad stories of girls in the pandemic, beginning with Lily May Holland, a 16-year-old who remembers the lockdown as “long, lonely days during lockdown when her parents, both doctors, were at work.”

She lived too far from them to meet up with friends, so she binge-watched “Gilmore Girls,” “Gossip Girl” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” multiple times. If not for the pandemic, “I would’ve gone to parties, and me and my friends were planning to go to concerts, and homecoming,” Lily said. “I had crushes freshman year. But all that fell away.”

Weiss shares the stories of girls developing eating disorders, bursting into tears for no reason, or drinking bottles of vodka and needing their stomachs pumped.

Pope Francis predicted exactly that — and suggested ways Catholics should respond.

Pope Francis was writing his encyclical when COVID-19 hit and writes that the pandemic made him realize that “Unless we recover the shared passion to create a community of belonging and solidarity worthy of our time, our energy and our resources, the global illusion that misled us will collapse and leave many in the grip of anguish and emptiness.”

He worried that people would be driven into the arms of consumerism and society would “rapidly degenerate into a free-for-all that would prove worse than any pandemic.”

At the heart of the encyclical is his examination of refugees and racism in light of the Good Samaritan parable and the fundamental theme of his pontificate, to “go out to the peripheries.” But he also says, “Some peripheries are close to us, in city centers or within our families.”

The encyclical shares a number of practical suggestions.

Welcome the stranger. Pope Francis urges Catholics to make “daily efforts to expand our circle of friends, to reach those who, even though they are close to me, I do not naturally consider a part of my circle of interests.” Our parish did this through a “bring your own burger” weekly parish cookout which everyone was invited to attend.

Stop dividing. One dimension of the pandemic cuts directly against the Good Samaritan’s message — our tendency to divide according to our beliefs about masks and vaccines. “Let us renounce the pettiness and resentment of useless in-fighting and constant confrontation. Let us stop feeling sorry for ourselves and acknowledge our crimes, our apathy, our lies” he writes (No. 78). Start by praying for those you disagree, then follow up by reaching out.

Send them to work, if possible. Francis has often pointed out the disaster of youth unemployment. He writes in the encyclical that “Work gives us a sense of shared responsibility for the development of the world, and ultimately, for our life as a people” (No. 162). The pandemic upended the employment landscape, giving new opportunities for employment.

Finally: Build charity. Literally. The encyclical calls for “social friendship” which is a concept Francis introduced in 2015. He said he once visited a parish in Buenos Aires where a group of university students were volunteering time to build rooms. “They were all different, yet they were all working for the common good,” he said. What can you help build for your parish?

Pope Francis ends with a vote for hope. “Social love makes it possible to advance towards a civilization of love, to which all of us can feel called,” he says in the encyclical. Even after the pandemic, “Charity, with its impulse to universality, is capable of building a new world.”

This appeared at Aleteia.

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Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II, The Fatima Family Handbook and What Pope Francis Really Said, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He lives in Atchison, Kansas, with his wife, April, and their nine children.