The impact of the pandemic on kids' mental health
Jenna M. Bogetti, licensed mental health counselor May 12, 2022 • 8 min
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, children have faced unprecedented challenges. While we were all forced to give up many of our everyday activities, children were unable to engage in many of the activities that help shape them. This period of uncertainty may have a long-term impact on the health of the developing mind.
How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected the mental health of children vs. adults?
Although we might not fully understand the implications of the pandemic on mental health for many years, there have been indications that it's already taking a toll on young minds. This is especially true for already-vulnerable families, those struggling with poverty or existing mental health issues, and members of marginalized groups.
One difference between children and adults is how the pandemic could be affecting development. While adults have reached many of their developmental milestones, children's brains are still being shaped by their experiences. An important part of a child's development is their relationships with caregivers, feeling seen, heard and understood, all of which may be greatly suffering due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Now, children are being exposed to stress at a higher volume than ever before. They may be struggling with concerns of infecting vulnerable family members with the virus, losing loved ones, or they may have parents who have lost their jobs or are balancing working from home with home schooling. These stressors may influence the way children interact with their parents—and with each other.
Common detrimental effects of the pandemic on kids
Stress and information overload
Children may be feeling more confused and uncertain due to mixed messages regarding vaccines, recovery and mandates at school and in public. The pandemic has also caused children to be exposed to loss in unprecedented ways, both in freedom and socialization, as well as in the loss of loved ones. To compound the issue, many children have constant access to information regarding the pandemic. Because of social media and the internet, parents may have a harder time filtering what's available to their children.
Children were also being exposed to adult stressors more frequently than before. Being at home with their families for extended time gave them greater exposure to issues their parents may have been dealing with. This was also due to the stress adults were experiencing themselves, which was hard to hide from children when everyone was always at home.
An important part of development is related to our social interactions. Although social media and video calls help us to stay connected, they're not the same as meeting in person, hugging friends and interacting in different environments.
What to look for (warning signs) with depression and anxiety in children
It's important to be aware of the signs of depression and anxiety in children in order to help support them at home and in our communities. Mental health-related issues in children have clearly increased during the pandemic: From 2019 to 2020, there was a 31% increase in mental health-related emergency room visits for children ages 12-17 and a 24% increase for children ages 5-11.
Here are some warning signs to look out for :
- Lack of interest in things such as eating, being around friends or activities that they otherwise found exciting or fun
- Changes in energy, sleeping more or less than usual, struggling to pay attention and exhibiting either signs of restlessness or moving more slowly than usual
- Feelings of sadness, loneliness, guilt or fear
- Self-harm or other destructive behaviors
- Excessive worry regarding personal health, the health of family members or bad things happening in general
- Fear of certain situations or people
- Worry about being away from parents or close family members
- Symptoms of panic attacks, sudden intense fear with physical symptoms such as rapid heartbeat, nausea, trouble breathing or sweating
- Avoidance of activities, trouble sleeping, loss of appetite or physical symptoms such as stomachache or headache
There is also the concern of increased rates of drug use and suicide among children and adults due to the pandemic. Many of the common risk factors for suicidal ideation or drug use have been exacerbated by the pandemic. These include :
- Economic stress
- Mental health distress or disorders
Helping children move forward
While the pandemic has negatively impacted our lives, there are helpful ways to support children during these difficult times. Telemedicine is on the rise, providing services to children who otherwise may not have been able to access mental health treatment or support.
The pandemic has also exposed the need for mental health support in the U.S. Many new services are available. In order to help children during this difficult time, pay attention, show support, listen, and reach out to professionals to give children the assistance they need.
Published on February 4, 2022.