The COVID generation: Teens share their stories of resilience and upheaval

Over the past two years, millions of teenagers have missed out on the rites of passage that generations before them experienced as a matter of course. Add to that their increased levels of anxiety and isolation, and it quickly becomes apparent why the COVID generation stands apart as a uniquely marked one.

'I held myself prisoner... I had constant headaches,' says Italian teen who stopped socializing

Nicholas Flowers, 19, lives in Hopedale, northern Labrador, a community that has 800 residents. When COVID hit, he was at home attending school online. He says the isolation took a toll on his well-being. 'There was a lot more on my mind. You know, learning on your own can be quite stressful.' (Submitted by Nicholas Flowers)

Listen to Part 1) ► The COVID Generation

Whether they call themselves Generation Z or The COVID Generation, many adolescents today worry that their coming of age has already come and gone.  Social isolation has been acute — studies and surveys from around the world confirm this reality.

In one study, 29 per cent of Italian youth reported low or very low well-being.  Young Italians also report lower life satisfaction than the middle-aged, in contrast to pre-pandemic surveys.   

A recent study focusing on the adolescent Chinese population, revealed up to 43  per cent of youth reported depression and anxiety, much higher than most estimates reported in China in the pre-COVID era.   

But John Della Volpe warns that this generation does not simply amount to a pile of grim statistics. He is the director of polling at The Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School.

"While there are high levels of anxiety and stress that both our research and scores of other research centres have identified, it's also true that many youth today are channeling this anxiety and stress into bettering their own lives and becoming engaged in global issues, like climate change."

The point is that it's not all grim statistics. There are many other stories of resilience and strength. 

Nicholas Flowers (age 19) – Hopedale, Labrador

When the coronavirus hit Canada in March 2020, Inuit teenager Nicholas Flowers said he could feel the fear and shock.

"Could something that began in Wuhan, China, eventually threaten the tiny Inuit community of Hopedale, Labrador?"

At the time, Nicholas was 17 years old and in Grade 12. Everyone in the village had heard about what had happened during the last pandemic, just over a century ago. The Spanish flu was introduced to the Inuit by German missionaries, who along with spreading the word of God, also spread the virus — wiping out 70 per cent of the population in two Labrador settlements.

Flowers says that this trauma from long ago was triggered again with COVID-19, even among the young.

"There's that same fear and uncertainty, even to this day because of the Spanish flu. Even sometimes now, I'll feel a bit down, will feel the fear." 

Living under this historical shadow, Nicholas and his classmates were thrown into online learning full-time. People formed bubbles within the small community of 800 residents.  Everyone's social life ended. 

To get off the screen, Nicholas took refuge by taking up paddling in his kayak to connect with the land and 'take notice of the little things, forms of life and the way that everything is connected to the bigger forms of life, including us.' (Submitted by Nicholas Flowers)

Adapting to an online life tested Nicholas. Despite the fact he'd won several scholarships and was then attending Memorial University in Newfoundland, there was something unsettling about this new way of learning that disagreed with him: the solitude, the screen, the faraway voices, the detachment.

"It exhausted me. There isn't much laughing online. I missed that part of the classroom atmosphere," he said.
Eventually, Nicholas decided to end his studies in environmental sciences. After much soul-searching, he chose to become a teacher of Inuktitut.

"I know it's language that really helps bring us together. It's not as strong as it used to be but it's important to not be afraid," Nicholas said.

'My grandmother definitely helped me to become who I am to this day,' says Nicholas. His grandmother taught him how to make the sealskin boots in this picture. She was a respected elder in the community of Hopedale who everyone referred to as Aunt Joy. (Submitted by Nicholas Flowers)

"I never thought I would consider this pathway, but whether it's combating climate change, learning the language or having respect for the land, we can make a difference. That's the way our generation is going to stay strong."

For Nicholas, his new path was the gift of the pandemic.

Gaia Milesi (age 18) – Bergamo, Italy

Gaia Milesi lived in the epicentre of the COVID outbreak in Italy. The virus walloped the northern regions, especially the city of Bergamo. There were so many deaths that one local priest demanded the constant tolling of the bells for the dead be silenced in order to preserve the mental health of its residents. Local papers were filled with pages and pages of obituaries.

"I cried, out of fear that I would not see my friends or family again… that they would become infected and that I would not have had the chance to say goodbye to them," said Gaia.

Gaia Milesi with her nephew. (Submitted by Gaia Milesi)

To distract herself from the chaos, Milesi confined herself to her room and played with her dog, Peggy. She didn't even socialize with family.

"I held myself prisoner. I only came out to eat and wash. My skin condition got worse because I never saw the sun. I had constant headaches, I felt tired and became an old woman." 

When Italy was in lockdown, Gaia stayed in her bedroom with her dog, Peggy. 'I didn’t see natural light for months.' (Submitted by Gaia Milesi)

Milesi also needed space to pay attention to her mental state. When lockdown eventually ended, she began cooking every day for her family.  And she took up meditation.

"Yes! When I'm in a bad period, I take a moment to meditate.  It feels like nobody is around me. I'm the only person in the world. It makes me feel so much better."

Looking back over the last few COVID years, Gaia sums up her experience with these words:

Loneliness.  Anger. Pain. Breakage. Happiness. Depression. Bitterness. Hope.

When asked whether the word "breakage" still applies today, Gaia concludes: "not as much. It applies to friendships that ended and may never be recovered. I am still sad but I understand these were people who stayed with me for two years, and I loved them, but now I understand I can also move on with my life — without them. That's what the pandemic has taught me." 

'This picture shows me and all the other girls and boys who should have left for a year of studying abroad in the summer of 2020. At the time we were all very happy because the agency was still giving us hope that everything was going to be fine,' says Gaia Milesi. (Submitted by Gaia Milesi)

Charlise Bruchet (age 16) – Chestermere, Alberta

"My family is a bunch of sports nuts. I play volleyball, soccer, and I sail.  I play piano and violin. And I've been valedictorian. I've wanted to be an engineer since I was about five years old."

Charlise's life was jam-packed and as she describes it, "pretty great." During the first year of the pandemic, family members were cautious, observing lockdowns and limiting sports and social activities.

Charlise has always had a very active life before she got COVID. The family all love sports. Their house in Chestermere, a city east of Calgary, has a man-made lake where they often enjoy water activities. ( (Submitted by Charlise Bruchet )

In April 2021, the family decided not to travel during spring break. "It wasn't safe enough," Charlise said. However, other teenagers at her high school rented a hall and threw a huge party. 

"They were openly rebelling at a time when the rules were quite strict. There were some privileged kids that went to my daughter's high school. Maybe they thought the rules didn't apply to them" said Charlise's mother, Nina.

Charlise says that when school reopened after spring break, "some teens, knowing they had COVID, returned to class, hoping to spread the virus. In fact, some of the girls said it openly to the rest of the class. 'This is great because we'll be exempt from final exams.'" 

When Charlise returned to class, she soon became infected.  Vaccines weren't available for her age group yet so the infection was fierce. After she recovered from a two-week fever, aching joints and heart palpitations, Charlise began to feel much better. But, it was temporary. 

Four months later, in the fall of 2021, Charlise started "crashing."

"I was breathless and exhausted. I had a lot of pain in my legs.  I felt like a 90-year-old woman."

When Charlise got COVID, it hit hard. 'It was rough. I'm not going to lie.' She experienced a lot of chest pains, breathing difficulties, a high fever for two weeks, and says she was so groggy that she couldn't stand up. She also lost 10 pounds. (Submitted by Charlise Bruchet)

Her mother, Nina, went looking for answers but realized specialists within the medical system didn't believe a teenager could get long COVID.  "Some of them feel threatened when they don't have an answer. They can get defensive." 

After one year, a doctor finally diagnosed Charlise with long COVID. It's been a very tough journey. 

"I wear compression stockings up to my waist. I'm on a heart drug. I'm getting acupuncture. But my marks have definitely dropped. I have to work so much harder in school now," said Charlise.

Her mom watches warily. 

Says Nina: "She's been really disciplined about working hard, but right now there's no way to achieve the marks she needs to get because of her personal health. It's baby steps. Only when Charlise gets better, then I will be able to fully enjoy motherhood once again."     

Charlise (middle) with her mom, Nina and sister, Sienna. Charlise says it's just just physical challenges she faces having long COVID. 'Mentally, I'm not back to where I was at all. I can't remember things. And I have a hard time focusing in school.' (Submitted by Charlise Bruchet)

*This episode was produced by Mary O'Connell.

For more on what students have experienced and how we can help them recover and thrive, go to  And watch The National on Monday, June 13 for a new report in their Learning Curve series, about the pandemic's effects on education and our kids.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now