Young people on P.E.I. were so severely impacted by the social circumstances and policy regulations around managing the COVID-19 pandemic that they lived life as if they were ill even if they weren't, according to new research.
The research project — led by UPEI Canada Research Chair Caroline Ritter and Gemma Postill, a PhD candidate at the University of Toronto — examined why healthy, young adults in a relatively low-risk province like P.E.I. were lining up in droves to get tested for COVID-19 around December 2020.
The researchers examined the motivation to get tested, and found young Islanders felt profound negative effects from the virus regardless of whether they contracted it or not.
"With the real virus, you might have a fever or you might have a cough, those kind of symptoms. But what we found is kind of like when you're diagnosed with a chronic disease," said Postill.
"Living in the pandemic really shaped the day-to-day activities."
Postill said young people were shaping their dreams and career goals around the pandemic as if they were ill.
"They changed their career because they wanted more stability in a way that one might if they were diagnosed with a chronic condition," said Postill.
The researchers found young people were prioritizing getting tested over going to work and were rearranging their days due to pandemic considerations.
"Living in the pandemic really shaped the day-to-day activities." - Gemma Postill, lead author and PhD candidate at the University of Toronto
The severe downturn of mental health proved to be another shared experience for many young adults on P.E.I.
Postill quoted one participant who said his mental state during the pandemic was the worst it's ever been.
"When you're so young and you maybe haven't had all these other lived experiences ... this really is kind of the mentally worst or the most difficulty that a lot of them had experienced," she said.
The research saw young people complied with public health restrictions because they were motivated by the moral obligation to support and be part of the community, on top of the stigma against a non-compliance to the rules.
"A couple of people compared non-compliance to drunk driving, which is quite a severe comparison. But I think it really speaks to how they viewed spreading COVID and those impacts," said Postill.
And while transmission among family and friends has been a general concern for most throughout the pandemic, the research showed young people were particularly concerned for everyone in the community — which Ritter and Postill said had something to do with the size of P.E.I. and its close-knit communities.
"Some participants reported they felt observed ... that the neighbours might see, or the neighbours might recognize them in the store if they didn't wear a mask, things like that," said Ritter.
She said public health measures also affected young people's social lives by forcing them to limit their social circles and increasing concern around how they would find life partners in their twenties with such restrictions in place.
Ritter said the emotions revealed in the interviews were a mix of pride and guilt.
Young adults are motivated when things are going well, she said, and their pride in being part of a community comes with keeping it as a low-risk environment.
But when it came to comparing themselves to people in other provinces, the research found young people shied away from posting on social media to reduce the spotlight on what they were still allowed to do on P.E.I.
"These public health measures should really be treated as limited natural resources because it has these massive impacts ... on the mental well-being of young adults," said Ritter.
"A lot can be learned from our research, not just for P.E.I. but also for Canada internationally as a whole," Ritter said.
Both researchers will be sharing their work at the upcoming Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences — Canada's largest academic gathering, taking place virtually this year from May 12-20.
Ritter said they plan on getting in touch with the provincial government and health officials to provide them with information that might be useful in navigating the ongoing pandemic.