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How COVID-19 Impacts Children’s Mental Health

With the emergence of COVID-19, children with existing mental health issues must endure the added burden of a pandemic. Children often rely on schools to provide mental health services, but school closures have made it difficult to access and preserve the quality of these services. Historical research on the effects of pandemics on children’s mental health is limited, but current analyses on the impact of COVID-19, in the U.S. and across the world, can help inform best practices for promoting resilience among children facing adversity.

Mental health supports at school

Due to the public health crisis, educators have had to close their doors and open their laptops, forcing children to adapt to new ways of learning and accessing needed services. Having to relate to teachers, friends, and school staff solely through virtual means may be especially challenging for some students. Distance learning and social isolation because of COVID-19 may worsen existing mental health issues and lead to more mental health cases among children.

Public health experts are particularly concerned for children living with an abusive or substance-dependent guardian. Children growing-up in unsafe homes may view school campuses as dependable, trusted hubs of social support that offer a safe space. While pediatric mental health specialty services may be available in the community, most children who need treatment do not receive it. To bridge the gap, schools play an important role in identifying mental health issues and providing supportive services. Now more than ever, students facing adverse experiences at home, compounded by the consequences of COVID-19, need access to quality mental health services to protect their emotional well-being.

How children are faring outside the U.S.

We don’t yet know the extent of COVID-19’s mental health impact on youth. However, lessons learned from analyzing the impact of shelter-in-place orders instituted in other countries could light the way to how we can best prepare for the future outcomes of our current situation.

Researchers in the UK carried out a survey among youth with existing mental health issues to assess how the pandemic and the subsequent restrictions are affecting them. Although the students understood the need for restrictions like school closures, many reported increased anxiety, problems with sleep, and panic attacks as a result. Key findings indicated 51% of students agreed that the pandemic had made their mental health a bit worse, and 32% agreed it made it much worse. When asked which activities were most helpful for their mental health, the more popular responses were face-to-face calls with friends, watching TV, exercise, and learning new skills. Encouraging youth to participate in these positive activities could help mitigate the added emotional health impacts on youth in the U.S.

In China, research on the mental health effects of school closures during COVID-19 emphasize the need to protect children living in unsafe homes. Researchers found that social distancing measures possibly had a harmful effect on children living in an abusive home, and likely exacerbated abuse during this time of economic uncertainty and stress. In parts of China, reports of domestic violence more than tripled, and increased rates of child abuse, neglect, and exploitation were also reported. China’s cautionary tale leads us to wonder how we can prevent similar adverse outcomes and provide opportunities for resilience for at-risk children.

A data-driven approach to resilience

We must safeguard our children’s long-term health by looking at the best data-driven practices for promoting resilience among children facing adversity. The more a child feels connected and supported, the more likely they are to have better long-term emotional health. Beyond support, communities have a shared responsibility to nurture sound mental health practices in children and youth for them to develop effective coping skills and adapt in the face of unexpected challenges.

Having safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments within the family, community, and at school are critical. School staff may not be able to support their students in-person, but by maintaining their consistent, caring relationships online, they can strengthen children’s resilience against adversity.

Concern for our children’s mental health has only increased since the start of the pandemic, putting a strain on school mental health supports. If students cannot rely on quality mental health services from schools, then we must ensure children receive appropriate care and support in our homes and communities. Timely, yet limited data show COVID-19 is already impacting our children’s mental health, but it is up to us to define to what extent it affects their long-term health and well-being.

Source: KidsData | How COVID-19 Impacts Children’s Mental Health, https://www.kidsdata.org/blog | ©  Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health. retrieved May 13, 2020. Republished with permission.
Kidsdata.org, a program of the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health, promotes the health and wellbeing of children in California by providing an easy to use resource that offers high-quality, wide-ranging, local data to those who work on behalf of children.

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