Anyone who has cared for or spent time around a child during the past 18 months knows how difficult the COVID-19 pandemic has been on them emotionally.
Now, one of the largest studies on children’s mental health during the pandemic to date shows just how significant the toll has been, indicating that 1 in 4 youth around the globe are grappling with clinically elevated symptoms of depression, and that 1 in 5 have increased signs of anxiety.
Those numbers suggest that depression and anxiety have essentially doubled among children worldwide during the pandemic, according to the researchers.
“When COVID-19 started, most people thought it would be difficult at the outset but that kids would be better over time, as they adjusted and got back to school,” Sheri Madigan, an author of the study published in JAMA Pediatrics on Monday and a clinical psychologist with the University of Calgary, said in a statement. “But when the pandemic persisted, youth missed a lot of milestones in their lives. It went on for well over a year, and for young people that’s a really substantial period of their lives.”
The researchers pooled data from more than 29 studies that included more than 80,000 children in Asia, Europe, North America, Central America, South America and the Middle East.
The analysis suggests that older adolescents and girls have experienced the highest rates of depression and anxiety during COVID-19 — confirming what many experts have been saying for months.
In a United States-based poll conducted this spring, for example, parents of teenage girls indicated they were particularly worried about the emotional impact the pandemic has had on them, noting that they’re dealing with sleep disruptions and withdrawing from family life. In a different survey conducted a few months into the pandemic, 70% of teens self-reported that they were struggling with their mental health in some way.
There are reasons why teens may be particularly susceptible to depression and anxiety right now. As one expert told HuffPost early on in the pandemic, an adolescent’s “job” is to become more independent and to go out into the world, but they have been unable to do that.
“When the pandemic persisted, youth missed a lot of milestones in their lives. It went on for well over a year, and for young people that’s a really substantial period of their lives.”
“Once you enter adolescence you begin differentiating from your family members, and your peers can actually become your most important source of social support,” Nicole Racine, a clinical psychologist at the University of Calgary and lead researcher on the new paper, said in a statement. “That support was greatly reduced, and in some cases absent altogether, during the pandemic.”
Racine and her co-researchers noted that rates of depression and anxiety have tended to ebb and flow with COVID-19 restrictions — increasing when children and teens are kept home and away from their peers and typical routines.
That suggests that many children may essentially bounce back when the pandemic recedes. However, in the United States and some other countries, cases are once again surging with the highly contagious delta variant and the upcoming school year will by no means be a typical one.
Still, groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics have strongly urged schools to resume in-person learning this fall, in large part because of the impact the past 18 months have had on children’s mental health, and have called on pediatricians and schools to screen children (and their parents) for mental health issues this year and beyond.
Experts have also emphasized throughout the pandemic there are steps parents can take to help with a multipronged approach necessary to support children’s mental health. To start, simply validate how challenging the pandemic has been and make it clear that you are available to talk. Also, be on the lookout for “reemergence anxiety.” (Here are four questions parents can ask that may be helpful to gauge how children are doing.)
“I think for most children who have experienced elevated mental health symptoms, some of that will resolve,” Racine said. “But there will be a group of children for whom that isn’t the case. For them, this pandemic may have been a catalyst, setting them off on a trajectory that could be challenging. And there’s another group of children who had mental health difficulties pre-pandemic. They might really struggle long term.”
Experts are still learning about COVID-19. The information in this story is what was known or available as of publication, but guidance can change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.