While various studies show how the COVID pandemic is affecting the mental health of adults, there has, so far, been very little research into the impact it's having on children and young people. But if we look at the small amount of research that does exist, while considering the number of new cases we’ve seen over the past year, it's clear the impact has been significant and far-reaching.
Not only are children and young people with pre-existing mental health conditions reporting a deterioration in their mental health, but the number of children being referred with new serious mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, OCD, and eating disorders, has increased drastically.
We can attribute this rise to three key areas.
The usual things that help children take a break from their home environment have mostly been forced to shut. All over the country, schools, youth clubs and even places of worship are closed, meaning the structures we have in place to encourage learning and socialisation have been taken away. The effects of being trapped indoors will be significant, with many feeling extremely isolated.
For many young people, that first taste of independence couldn’t feel further away. Moving away from home, starting university, graduating, getting their foot on the career ladder - these important rites of passage have mostly been put on hold.
According to the OECD, under-25s are over twice as likely to be without a job than those aged 26 to 64. The closure of schools, colleges and universities has led to young people spending significant periods in isolation, heightening the stress and pressure they find themselves under and contributing to the overarching feeling of powerlessness. This is shown in the 2021 Youth Index in which more than half of 16 to 25-year-olds reported 'always or often' feeling anxious.
Parents have been tasked with new roles and responsibilities as they deal with increased COVID care duties. For some, despite their best efforts, the challenge of being a full-time carer and part-time educator, all while trying to manage their own careers, is just too much.
Many parents are struggling under high levels of uncertainty and stress, and this has led to an increase in abuse in some cases, both in terms of children experiencing abuse directly or witnessing abuse and conflict at home. Many marriages have become unhappy and unsettled, which has had a knock-on effect on children and young people, with many feeling scared and stuck in situations they cannot escape.
There's a concern that the pandemic could lead to a lost generation, with young people developing life-long issues with anxiety and depression.
Looking at other major outbreaks such as SARS in 2003 would suggest that the longer-term effects on mental health will only be lifelong for a small percentage of young people. But in truth, it's just too early to predict what will happen because the coronavirus pandemic is so unprecedented.
If you’re a parent or carer of children or young people, it's completely normal to be concerned. Here are three practical tips I often share with families that can help manage and rationalise feelings of stress and anxiety in children and young people.
For parents worried that their child might be feeling anxious, it’s important to encourage them to talk openly and honestly about their feelings. As a parent or carer, you are best placed to judge when and where your child is likely to open up to you. It’s about creating the time and space to allow that to happen.
Instead of giving them any guarantees, try to help them understand the situation. Be as transparent as possible, while, of course, being mindful of what they can handle for their age. Just remember, children are experts at spotting when their parents are being disingenuous.
Also remember that not everyone is comfortable talking about their feelings, and some children won’t know or won’t always be able to articulate what’s going on inside. If this happens, try not to be disheartened. Instead, try another approach.
Sitting with your child and writing down their thoughts is another way to help ease the worry they’re feeling. We call this ‘journaling’, and it can be a great way of managing and rationalising anxieties.
When your child does open up, show you’re listening to them and validate their experience and concerns. Our protective parental instincts often mean we want to jump in and quash any worries as soon as they’re vocalised but try not to dismiss them or make light of them. Using language like, “I hear what you’re saying and understand how you’re feeling”, can be helpful and reassuring. Simply feeling like they’ve had space to voice their worries - and that they’ve been heard - can help to alleviate some of their stress.
You can help them process and normalise feelings of anxiety by letting them know that it’s okay to feel this way, particularly given the current situation. A practical tip I often share with parents is for them to draw a ‘roadmap’ with their child to help them visualise what’s coming up over the next few weeks. For example, giving them things to look forward to in the immediate future, at the weekend, or planning in their favourite meals, games, walks or calls with friends. Try to stick to these as best you can, as this will help them to feel reassured in the short-term.
Aside from the many physical health benefits it brings, there's growing evidence that moderate to vigorous exercise also helps reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression in children and young people. This is because physical activity can release "feel-good" chemicals in the brain, known as endorphins. The simple act of playing outside with friends may not be an option right now, but there are many different online options such as the Body Coach’s 5-minute move workout for kids, or Rainbow Yoga with Adrienne.
Try to encourage your child to maintain regular contact with others outside the immediate family unit where possible. If they’re feeling ‘Zoomed out’, suggest an old-fashioned phone call instead. Younger children in particular may enjoy writing a letter or drawing a picture and posting it to their friends and grandparents.
Although it may sound counterintuitive, playing video games can be good for children’s mental health. This isn’t a carte blanche pass for unlimited screen time, but it can provide an excellent way for children and young people to connect with friends and peers. It’s where many of them go to socialise and get some much-needed respite from the day-to-day stressors, in moderation of course.