“How can he be so stupid?” a dad asked me in a telehealth visit. His voice shook with fear and rage as he described his adolescent son sneaking out to meet friends against legal and family orders to stay at home.

As a child psychiatrist, I’ve been fielding many such calls.

“What if he’s not stupid?” I asked. Youths who ignore orders to shelter in place are cast as insensitive, short sighted, and foolish by media and politicians. But what if adults are missing their logic? What if adolescents and young adults are actually acting according to the American ideals of self-interest and self-sufficiency that have been modeled for them?

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Leadership happens by example. Lawmakers and other adults have set very poor examples about acting selflessly to protect vulnerable populations. When nearly 8,000 Americans aged 24 and younger died from gun violence in 2018, youths’ pleas for gun control fell on deaf ears. After nearly 11,000 young American lives were lost to suicide and drug overdoses in 2018, mental health and substance abuse treatment has remained limited and difficult to access. Efforts to reduce climate change, despite urgent pleas to do so, have been sparse.

Should young Americans now be asked to protect the older adults who failed to protect them? Is that fair?

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If adults expect adolescents and young adults to act in ways we have not demonstrated and modeled for them, we are the stupid and selfish ones. Lawmakers are demanding enormous sacrifices from young Americans: their educations, their social lives, and sometimes their safety, as many of the 1 million abused and neglected American kids are now isolated at home with their abusers, with no plan to ensure their safety.

Young people have low odds of dying from Covid-19. As I write this, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 25 Americans aged 24 or younger have died of Covid-19 in 2020, or 0.1% of the lives claimed by suicide and unintentional drug overdoses in this age group in 2018. (For comparison, 477 children and adolescents under age 17 in the United States died of influenza in the 2018-2019 flu season.)

No graduations. No sports. No time with friends. Lonely teenagers are more likely to become depressed, obese, and unhealthy adults. Social isolation in childhood is linked to poor health, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and obesity in adulthood. Even in good times, about 8% of American teens try to kill themselves each year and about 70% suffer from loneliness. In 2020, these numbers will likely be higher.

Is it shocking that some young people see social isolation measures as a more deadly threat than Covid-19? Is it rational?

Our medical system’s insufficient capacity to treat Covid-19 patients is a crisis that needs urgent intervention. Meanwhile, we’ve brushed aside the same medical system’s insufficient capacity to treat the issues threatening the lives of America’s youths for years.

Rationing health care — an issue now in the news in the Covid-19 era — is something I was tasked to do from my first day as a psychiatrist. There were never enough beds in the psychiatric units for young people at risk of death from suicide or addiction. Now, as the need for mental health treatment rises, the pandemic has forced hospitals to further reduce their capacity to treat mental health issues.

All of the teens and young adults I treat have made valiant efforts to isolate themselves to protect others, even knowing that they are extremely unlikely to die from Covid-19. For the first two weeks, they did well. Now they are suffering. Some hit their limits and can’t do it anymore. More teens and young adults tell me this with each passing week. Their restlessness and boredom have morphed into depression, anxiety, and anger.

Is anyone considering them in deciding how our country moves forward? Is anyone thanking them for their selfless sacrifices?

Quite the opposite. They are shamed in the rare instances when they can’t, or refuse to, sacrifice their own well-being for the greater good. They are shamed for acting like teenagers — and for acting American.

Youths lack voting and spending power, so their voices don’t get heard. I am writing on their behalf because their perspectives matter. They will inherit the leadership of our troubled society and we are foolish not to prioritize their well-being.

While social isolation is necessary to reduce deaths and to keep hospitals functioning, I believe a more nuanced and sophisticated discussion of the risks and benefits to key groups is warranted. If we want our children and teens to help protect us, we must protect them first.

Lisa Jacobs, M.D., is a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist in Menlo Park, Calif., the assistant director of The Pegasus Physician Writers at Stanford, and editor at large of The Pegasus Review.

  • One possible solution, for teenages and young adults who agree (and who’s parents agree, for minors) would be to have them go to some type of quarantine environment, and to purposely expose them to a low dose of the virus. They might be sick for a few weeks, but the vast majority would come out of it immune (probably), and would then be of less risk to their elders than they would be otherwise.
    Of course, people with significant preexisting illness or immune problems would not be eligible.

    • This would be similar to the “mumps” parties in the past, when children were purposely exposed to mumps before puberty, to avoid more serious possible problems.

  • I appreciate this article, because it really does speak to the experience everyone I know is having right now. We’re all looking at our futures, and seeing a big black hole. No prospects, no opportunities, nothing to look forward to, maybe for years. The schoolwork and the crap jobs and the putting up with abusive family until you can move out, all for nothing. And I’m infuriated that the lockdown strategy was sold as a way to “buy time,” while experts (on this website, even!) admit that there’s nothing to really buy time for, except a vaccine that might never come.

    But I’m even more infuriated at the commenters who are trying to use my situation as leverage to end the lockdown, who are wringing their hands about the debt that’s going to get passed down to my generation. Because listen: this could have been prevented. But the lawmakers and experts and medical professionals failed. The older, more “responsible” people failed. YOU failed. You preferred an incompetent president, and gutted institutions, and tax cuts, and business as usual, and *we* are stuck picking up your tab for it.

    You also gloss over the fact that the category of “young people” still includes plenty of “essential workers,” and people with health problems, and people who are otherwise poor enough not to be able to access resources to cope with the pandemic. Including mental health resources. You’ve never cared about us, and the “reopen now!” position makes it clear that we’re expendable.

    And I guarantee that’s the reason a lot of young people are feeling depression and anxiety and despair right now. It’s not just that we’re watching our futures go up in smoke. It’s that it’s so clear our elders never cared enough to try and protect our futures in the first place.

  • “If adults expect adolescents and young adults to act in ways we have not demonstrated and modeled for them, we are the stupid and selfish ones.”

    Waddaya mean “we.” Studies at Princeton and by others have shown that US, and even state policy is controlled by a small group of very rich and privileged individuals, and is not remotely representative of the nation as a whole. Despite the apparent “division” in the US, a majority of Americans–Democrat and Republican alike–actually agree on a pretty wide range of topics. But our voices will never be heard because we’re not important to the politicians…the only thing they hear is the sound of money. If our policies truly reflected what “we” want, “we” wouldn’t be so selfish after all.

  • Actual statistics shows that 95% of the COVID-19 fatalities are from underlying illnesses. The overwhelming majority of people DO NOT have any significant risk of dying from COVID-19. Why not protect JUST the older, at-risk?

  • Thank you for putting this print. I am a proud father of an incredible 17 year old young lady and high school teacher. I have been saying this for weeks and have read the nasty comments towards anyone who questions the party line. We are screwing over our children. We have literally stolen their lives from them, taken their memories, and piled of trillions of dollars of debt for a less than 1/2 of one percent chance of dying of this virus. We need to protect the elderly and infirm but what about the kids? We should be ashamed of what we have done to our future generations.

  • It’s a tragic malady of broken building blocks (the Family Units) of a nation !

    Complicated, but compelling to fix it from the roots which have rotted, ie the roots of constructing intact, wholesome families… This will take 2-3 generations from now, if we begin now !

    Meanwhile, empathetic and a balanced, inclusive, intergenerational and non judgmental approach is the temporary solution.

  • This is one of the best arguments against the nation-wide coronavirus lockdown which I’ve read to this date. We all desire to remain healthy and most of us will gladly obey such undue restrictions initially, but if the current situation continues for much longer, increased protests with possible violence seem almost inevitable.

    I’m 74 years old and in reasonably good health. And while it’s certainly possible for me to become infected with the virus, with proper hygiene and common sense precautions it’s probably not all that likely. Taking extra measures to avoid infection is definitely wise, but this virtually total lockdown appear to be a massive over-reaction.

    Young adults are being very unfairly punished by extreme actions to protect those vulnerable older people who in many instances have shown little or no concern for them. And the very future of our country will always be with younger people; it’s their ideas which will help most to drive us forward as a nation. They are at minimal risk directly from the virus. Social isolation is a much more serious threat for them. And since I’ve had experience with such isolation earlier in life, I couldn’t agree more strongly. Even being an older person myself, why should we punish them so harshly.

    Let’s end the lockdown as soon as possible for the sake of the entire country. It’s ruining our economy and deeply interfering with the lives of everyone. And while it perhaps has enabled me to avoid the virus thus far, it has resulted in two months of my life being wasted which is something that can never be replaced.

    • Ditto. Wish they would have asked the boomers who are most affected by this if they should shut down the whole world to save a few of us. I think we would have voted “No”. We will put the future of our children and grandchildren first.

      I have a teenage son who is in his senior year of HS and I’m sad for him that it was so disrupted.

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