Rebuilding hope post-Covid: Helping students to overcome despair

Written by: Dr Stephanie Thornton | Published:
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People who have hope generally have better developmental outcomes. In this four-part series, psychologist Dr Stephanie Thornton looks at building back hope as we emerge from the pandemic. Part two considers how we might support those teenagers waylaid by despair

There are good a-priori reasons to suppose that the Covid-19 pandemic has triggered despair in at least a percentage of the young (John, 2020), and that the consequences of such despair may be serious, and even fatal (Weishaar & Beck, 2009).

The first article in this series explored how we might identify individual teenagers suffering despair. This article, the second in the series, now looks at how we might offer them support.

REBUILDING HOPE POST-COVID: To read other articles in this series, visit

  1. The signs of depression and despair
  2. Helping students to overcome despair
  3. Understanding risk
  4. Fostering hope and positivity

Supporting the despairing

The first prerequisite in supporting the despairing is to understand the specific trigger for that despair. For many of the young, the challenges of the pandemic have been practical: missing school and friends, struggling with home-schooling and so forth.

For many, there were serious challenges over lack of access to computers or the internet, or to exercise and the outdoors. For a few, there were challenges of being trapped at home with cruelty and abuse. These practical problems are ample basis for depression and even despair, but if such problems can be resolved, there is a good chance that even despair from these triggers will lift. But practical problems are not the only source of despair in the young.

An existential anxiety

Rich or poor, well provided for or not, safe or abused, the pandemic posed fundamental existential challenges to us all. It ripped up the cosy assumptions on which we have based our lives.

Once, we took it for granted that schools, the high street, clubs, (and so forth) would always be open, that nothing could stop us playing with friends, visiting Granny, going on holidays abroad – and we took it for granted that the structure of the future was known and predictable.

But through the pandemic we, and our children, have seen that our whole way of life, in effect our whole society, is fragile. All our commonplace expectations can be destroyed in a moment. In reality, nothing was as secure as it seemed.

Even now, as things seem to ease, the threat of more disaster remains, and to some extent, may never entirely go away. And that is a profound existential shock. Such a shock can trigger an anxiety and depression very different from that caused by practical problems: it can generate a generalised existential despair, reflecting a loss of confidence and hope in the future, and that needs a very different response from that required for despair originating from practical causes.

Of course, not all of the young will suffer existential despair. There are marked differences in how resilient individuals are in the face of adversity (Ellis et al, 2017).

The resilient may avoid despair of all kinds, however bad their situation. However, angst and despair are a common theme in teenage fiction, even in normal times. Research confirms that such existential anxiety is fairly common in adolescents (Berman et al, 2006), particularly in relation to the challenges of identity formation. There is also evidence, albeit of a less direct kind, that even the very young can suffer existential shock, and the existential despair that is loss of confidence and hope in the future.

For example: we have long known that adult refugees from war zones, famines, natural disasters suffer existential despair, as their situation strips away the meaning and potential of their lives (Murray et al, 2010). The same is true of child and teenage refugees (Vitus, 2010), whose loss of confidence and hope in the future may persist long after they have reached safety in a new land.

There is data following 9/11 showing that 60 per cent of school-age children in New York showed severe anxiety for six months or more after the attacks. That, of course, may be small surprise. But young children living a continent away, in Seattle, were also affected: 35 per cent had severe anxiety and eight per cent had symptoms amounting to PTSD more than a month after the attacks (Whalley & Brewin, 2007). Those children in Seattle were not responding to a direct practical situation, but to the loss of confidence in their assumptions about safety and society: and that is an existential anxiety.

Offering support is important

Thus research suggests that the probability of the young experiencing existential despair in the face of serious challenge is quite high. There is increasing recognition in psychology that the loss of confidence and hope in the future that is the hallmark of existential despair is damaging to mental health (Shrank et al, 2008), and may lead to suicide, substance abuse and the like (Weishaar & Beck, 2009).

Offering support to those suffering such despair is important. The key to such support is rebuilding hope – and indeed, all young people may benefit from some interventions aiming to build hope, in these troubled times.

It is, of course, far too early as yet for there to be any research specifically focusing on rebuilding hope in the young after an existential crisis of the magnitude of the pandemic. However, there is other research from which we can draw useful inferences.

Hope as a wellbeing factor

Interest in hope as a factor in mental health and resilience has blossomed over the past 20 years. Studies have suggested that individuals who have hope generally have better developmental outcomes than those with less or little hope, right across the board, from psychological adjustment to physical health and academic success (Snyder, 2002).

Hope has been defined in many different albeit often overlapping ways across research in this area (Shrank et al, 2008), which makes drawing practical inferences for supporting the young more difficult.

Snyder’s 2002 definition is widely respected. Snyder views hope as a composite of three factors: having clearly conceptualised goals, specific strategies to reach those goals, and an effective sense of agency.

This approach has led to the development of successful interventions aimed at fostering hope: for example, Marques et al (2009) developed a five-week programme designed to foster these three elements of hope, and demonstrated that it was successful in boosting life satisfaction and self-worth in participating 10 to 12-year-olds, gains which were maintained for 18 months.

That research was done in circumstances very different from the current challenge of rebuilding hope to counter depression and despair caused by the pandemic. However, it does offer some useful practical suggestions in the current situation…

Encourage hopeful goals despite the pandemic

The strong temptation when seeking to reassure the young after a major existential challenge is to say that everything is going to be okay, things will go back to normal, and to encourage goal-setting on that optimistic basis. However, in the current circumstances, a nuanced approach is better than such glib optimism.

In general optimism is a good thing (Carr, 2004), fostering mental and physical health. The complete lack of optimism that is despair is certainly damaging (Weishaar & Beck, 2009).

However, there is increasing evidence that misplaced optimism is also damaging, both exposing the individual to the risk of repeated disappointments, stress and despair consequent on false hopes, and also fostering inappropriate, even dangerous judgements and behaviour (Little, 2006; Thornton, 2019).

Encouraging the young to believe that everything will return to the way it was before the pandemic may be a dangerous foundation on which to rebuild their confidence and hope – and it is certainly dishonest: we really don’t know what the future holds.

The reality is that the conjunction of Covid-19 and climate change have created more uncertainty about the future than we have experienced for several generations. The clear lesson of history is that pandemics (the Black Death, the Spanish flu, etc) normally leave social change – and often quite radical social change – in their wake, and this one is likely to be the same.

The optimism and hope that we should offer the young is therefore not the glib reassurance that things will go back to the old normal, but the nuanced confidence that whatever the future holds may be different, but (as after previous pandemics) it may well be better. The challenge is to find goals to structure life in the new circumstances.

Empower and enable

The continuing uncertainties and the sheer scale of impact of the pandemic can easily engender feelings of helplessness, which may easily slide into a debilitating hopelessness and despair. Countering such helplessness is a key component in rebuilding hope.

What the young need is renewed confidence in their own agency in the world. But fostering this is a genuine challenge in a world where governments (for the best of reasons) have seized control of everyday lives in ways we had never imagined possible, where even adults have lost a considerable degree of independence and agency.

There are two issues here: the short term and the long term. Proximately, agency can be fostered by emphasising the immediate choices and control that are still presently possible, whatever may be happening in the wider world, and encouraging the young to consider, and to make those choices.

Teenagers have a wider scope for agency than the very young, particularly as restrictions relax. But even the very young can be empowered to make as many everyday decisions for themselves as possible. Looking to the longer term, it is the new generations who will play key roles in building the new society, the new patterns of life.

Encouraging the young to study social change after past pandemics (the Black Death led to end of serfdom; the Spanish flu sowed the seeds of the NHS, for example), and to explore what they hope will come of this current upheaval is a strong basis for inspiring empowerment for the future.

Positive planning

Snyder’s third element of hope is strategy: having an idea how to achieve goals, underlined by a positive sense of personal agency: yes I can. Of course, such strategies can only really emerge once one has goals, and the confidence in oneself to believe they can be achieved. Even then, it may be far from clear what one can effectively do.

At one level, the challenge of setting life goals and finding effective strategies for achieving those goals must always be personal and individual.

But in a situation where the world has changed, there is also a strong case for sharing ideas, for mutual support. Classroom discussions of what a better world might look like and how it might be achieved may foster the development of new goals, a new sense of agency, and new ideas about life strategies.

  • Dr Stephanie Thornton is a chartered psychologist, author and lecturer in psychology and child development. She is the co-author of Understanding Developmental Psychology (Macmillan International/Red Globe, 2021). The third article in this series is due out next week. To read her articles in SecEd, including in this series, go to

Further information & references

  • Berman et al: Existential anxiety in adolescents: Prevalence, structure, association with psychological symptoms and identity development, Journal of Youth and Adolescence (35), 2006.
  • Carr: Positive Psychology: The science of happiness and human strengths, Routledge, 2004
  • Ellis et al: Beyond risk and protective factors: An adaptation-based approach, Perspectives on Psychological Science (12), 2017.
  • John: Trends in suicide during the Covid-19 pandemic, BMJ ( 371), November 2020:
  • Little: Children’s risk-taking behaviour: Implications for early childhood policy and practice, International Journal of Early Years Education (14), 2006.
  • Marques et al: Building hope for the future: A program to foster strengths in middle-school students, Journal of Happiness Studies, 2009:
  • Murray et al: Review of refugee mental health interventions following resettlement, American Journal of Orthopsychiatry (80), 2010.
  • Schrank et al: Hope in psychiatry: A review of the literature, Acta Psychiatrica Scandinavia (118), 2008.
  • Snyder: Hope theory: Rainbows in the mind, Psychological Inquiry (13,4): 2002.
  • Thornton: Supporting pessimistic children and young people, British Journal of School Nursing (14), August 2019.
  • Vitus: Waiting time. The de-subjectification of children in Danish asylum centres, Childhood (17), 2010.
  • Weishaar & Beck: Hopelessness and suicide, International Review of Psychiatry (4), 2009.
  • Whalley & Brewin: Mental health following terrorist attacks, British Journal of Psychiatry (190), 2007.


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