Although the past two years have been a traumatic experience for everyone, the pandemic has uniquely impacted our children.
Luckily, children were the least impacted from an epidemiological standpoint, with only a small percentage of hospitalizations and mortalities among the already smaller pool of positive cases. They were not, however, able to elude the emotional and mental impacts of the coronavirus. The disruption of their daily routines, isolation from friends and family, and the stress emanating from the adults around them have taken their toll on many children over the last two years.
For many, stay-at-home orders resulted in a very acute exposure to home life. Families were now forced to spend every waking moment together during this extremely stressful and difficult time. Stress over financial woes, fear of infection, and the cumulative stresses of life lived in lockdown emanated from parents around the globe and seeped into their children. The stress surrounding the virus was compounded by frustrations with the collision of working from home and virtual learning. In many cases, both the parents and the children found their relationships strained by the lack of reprieve from family life. Children not getting to spend time with friends and parents getting no breaks from the demands of parenting caused feelings of frustration and resentment within households, only worsening the situation for both parties.
The combination of social distancing, virtual learning, and cancellation of extra-curricular activities like sports and school clubs resulted in a state of isolation and loneliness felt by children all around the world. Not only is this lack of social contact detrimental to a child’s development, but research has repeatedly tied it to declines in mental and emotional health. The evidence is most obvious when looking at the data collected over the past two years.
JAMA Pediatrics conducted a study in China’s Hubei Province on over 2300 schoolchildren to assess their emotional state following a quarantine. At the conclusion of this 30-day quarantine, about 19% of the children reported feelings of anxiety and over 22% reported depressive symptoms. The results of that study were reflected by the reports of many parents. A survey of parents of children ages 5-12 found that 20% felt their child’s emotional or mental health had declined in response to the pandemic.
According to America’s Promise Alliance, a similar study found a continuation of that trend among high school students. Data collected in the early stages of the pandemic showed 25% of high school students reported a decline in their mental and emotional health following the lockdown. More recent data from a study “Kids Under Pressure” shows that teens continue to struggle as the pandemic drags on, with nearly 66% reporting that they feel unable to cope with the stressors in their lives.
When compared to the CDC’s data prior to the pandemic, there’s a stark contrast in the numbers. The average prevalence of mental health disorders among children ages 3-17 was reported at 4% for depressive disorder and 8% for anxiety disorder. This massive increase in the percentage of children suffering from mental health issues is reflected by the reports of mental health emergencies in hospitals. From March – October of 2020, mental health emergencies rose by 24% among children ages 5-11 and by 31% among children ages 12-17. The problem is most dramatically shown by the rise in emergency hospital visits caused by suspected suicide attempts. When compared to 2019, 2021 showed an increase of more than 50% in these types of hospitalizations among girls aged 12-17.
With such an abundance of data, the negative impacts that the pandemic has had on the mental and emotional health of many children is indisputable. While this information is useful to have moving forward, what’s most important now is doing whatever’s possible to help those that are struggling. It’s important for parents and family members to openly discuss mental health with their children and to seek professional help when necessary.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, several bills related to children’s mental health have been introduced. Bills such as American Families Plan and American Rescue Plan Act allocate funds to youth suicide prevention, pediatric mental health care, and school-based assistance for children struggling with mental health issues. Many other non-profit organizations also exist like MindUP that seek to help children deal with their stress and emotions in a healthy way.
Unaddressed mental health issues typically will not just go away on their own and ignoring them may result in long term reductions in a person’s quality of life, so be proactive in getting help!