As we move into a new year, the impacts of COVID-19 continue with us. No one is immune to the stress of the pandemic. Our daily lives, routines, and in some cases, jobs have been interrupted and many continue to live in a state of limbo, not knowing when they will be able to gather with family or return to work. Children are not immune to these stresses, and the potential long-term impact it can have on their mental health should not be ignored.
While children and young adults are at a lower risk of adverse health effects from contracting the virus, their mental health and overall wellbeing are strongly affected. Research has shown that most mental health disorders begin in childhood, and if left untreated can lead to negative health and social outcomes.
In childhood, many things are out of our control. This can cause stress on children, and in the current pandemic, children may have even less control over their lives than before. Daily routines have been disrupted, food insecurities have increased, many face homelessness, and children are suffering from a lack of contact with family and friends.
Loss of school routines can unsettle children and young adults
Removed from the familiar routines of school can leave children feeling isolated, increasing their anxiety and fear. In April of 2020, 188 countries suspended in-school learning, affecting over 91% of the world’s students. As of January 2021, 31 countries’ school systems are still affected. Schools have tried to compensate for these breaks in learning continuity by offering online distance learning. Unfortunately, this leaves disadvantaged children lagging behind their peers as they have limited access to technology and the internet.
In a recent study at a large public university in the US, 71% of students indicated increased stress and anxiety due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Multiple stressors were identified that contributed to the increased levels of stress, anxiety, and depressive thoughts among students. These included fear and worry about their own health and of their loved ones (91% reported negative impacts of the pandemic); difficulty in concentrating (89%); disruptions to sleeping patterns (86%); decreased social interactions due to physical distancing (86%); and increased concerns on academic performance (82%).
To help cope with the stress and uncertainties, some schools have canceled final exams and entrance exams. In some cases though, this leaves students uncertain of when or if they will be tested and what that means for their future academic aspirations. Around the world, graduation ceremonies have been canceled or moved online, and the grand achievement students worked toward for years is decreased in its status.
Many children also rely heavily on the mental health programs their schools offer, which they have been unable to access due to school closures. In the US, 35% of students receive mental health services exclusively from their schools. Telepsychiatry can help replace many of these services, overcoming distance and social isolation.
During the past eight months, children and families alike have missed out on important social and cultural milestones.
Social distancing increases anxiety
Childhood is a crucial development time in our lives when we learn many of the skills needed to become successful adults. Disruptions from the pandemic are negatively impacting many children’s development though. During the past eight months, children and families alike have missed out on important social and cultural milestones. Forgoing family gatherings, holidays, birthdays, and vacation plans.
All of this compiled with the stress induced by the threat of illness and loss of life is creating a worsening mental health situation for children. One in 10 families are reporting worsening behavioral health and 48% of families are facing the loss of regular childcare.
As a result of the upheaval, many children are becoming more dependent on their parents to set a routine. Some experts fear that children may resist or have difficulties resuming in-person schooling and may have trouble re-connecting to their mentors.
Telepsychiatry can help children manage difficult situations
The routines and social interactions offered by school are an important anchor for children and young adults alike. They provide stability and coping mechanisms for young people, especially those with existing mental health issues. With school closures, many students lose that anchor and could relapse. In 2020, the number of emergency room visits related to children’s mental health increased dramatically compared with 2019: the proportion of mental health-related visits for children aged 5–11 and 12–17 years increased approximately 24% and 31%, respectively.
While this finding may be affected by the drop in overall ER visits, it does provide an important insight into children’s mental health during the pandemic. As the researchers point out, this data “highlights the importance of continued monitoring of children’s mental health throughout the pandemic, ensuring access to care during public health crises, and improving healthy coping strategies and resiliency among children and families.”
Telepsychiatry offers inherent flexibility in mental health care delivery. At MindCare, many of our mental health specialists are board certified in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, and are available to virtually meet with patients 1-on-1 no matter the time or day, improving access to mental health care during this unprecedented time in history. Consultations can help both parents and children cope with pandemic-induced stress and help with the absence of routines.