HONG KONG (REUTERS) – Zhang Meng had a breakdown last December. The 20-year-old found herself sobbing on the stairs of her dorm, driven to despair by repeated Covid-19 lockdowns of her university campus in Beijing.

The lockdowns had meant she was mostly confined to her room and unable to meet up with friends. There were also strict curbs on when she could visit the canteen or take a shower. Describing herself as someone who craves in-person social interaction, Zhang said the restrictions had “removed the safety net that was holding me up and I felt like my whole being was falling down”.

That month, she was diagnosed with major depression and anxiety.

Yao, also 20 and who asked that his first name not be used, had his first breakdown in high school where he was a boarder, unable to understand why lockdown policies were so tough. He said that one day he had to take refuge in a school toilet, crying so hard “it felt like my insides were crying”.

In early 2021 while at university in Beijing, unable to shake that depression and also unhappy he had not taken the courses he wanted to for fear of upsetting his father, Yao attempted suicide.

China has employed some of the world’s harshest and most frequent lockdown measures in its determination to stamp out every Covid-19 outbreak, arguing it saves lives and pointing to its low pandemic death toll of around 5,200 to date.

It’s an effort it has shown little sign of abandoning, but the policy’s impact on mental health alarms medical experts and as Zhang’s and Yao’s experiences have shown, it is already taking its toll.

“China’s lockdowns have had a huge human cost with the shadow of mental-ill health adversely affecting China’s culture and economy for years to come,” argues a June editorial in the British medical journal the Lancet.

In particular, experts fear for the mental health of teenagers and young adults, more vulnerable because of their age and lack of control over their lives, and who have to contend with far greater education stresses and economic pressures than earlier generations.

The number of young people affected is potentially huge.

Some 220 million Chinese children and young people have been confined for prolonged periods due to Covid-19 restrictions, the Education Ministry estimated in 2020. It did not respond to a Reuters request for an updated figure and comment on the topic.

Kids under pressure