The pandemic has been a struggle for just about every global citizen. While kids typically don’t face the same risk from the virus that adults do, the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on their mental health may be just as debilitating.
Challenges—including changes to routine, the shift to remote learning, prolonged distance from friends and family, missing out on significant life events, and the loss of safety and security—can all contribute to the deterioration of mental health in kids and teens. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, trauma experienced at developmental stages can continue to affect young people throughout their lives.
In March 2021, a panel of experts participated in a U.S. News & World Report webinar on managing kids’ mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Melissa Merrick, president and CEO of Prevent Child Abuse America, explained how trauma kids are experiencing now can have “lasting detrimental health effects well into adulthood.”
“The more adverse childhood experiences (ACE) that children have, the more stress hormones are released in the body, which can set the stage for various health conditions including cardiovascular disease, depression, anxiety, and other negative health outcomes,” Merrick said. “Over 40 health outcomes to date have their roots in childhood.”
Merrick noted that, during the pandemic, ACE could also refer to “adverse COVID-19 experiences” due to deaths, illness, economic and housing instability, and the added loss of a daily school routine. To make things worse, children who are victims of abuse and neglect may fall through the cracks without “adult allies” at school who would typically be the first to spot signs of trauma.
Some experts believe society will likely grapple with the after-effects of these adverse COVID-19 experiences for decades to come.
“We were in crisis even before the pandemic,” Dr. Michael Sorter, director of the division of child and adolescent psychiatry at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, said. “Most children who need mental health services or behavioral health intervention don’t receive the care they need. Over half do not. One in five children really have a diagnosable condition.”
Dr. Ukamaka Oruche, an associate professor and director of global programs at the Indiana University School of Nursing, added that lower-income kids, in particular, have been failing in school because of technological disparities during the pandemic.
“We have kids in households where you have one iPad and you have four kids sharing it, and there may be no Wi-Fi available at home,” Oruche said. “So the parent has to drive to the school parking lot to get internet access. This is a major problem that leads to feelings of isolation and failure for some kids, which contributes to poor health outcomes.”
Though crucial for preventing the spread of the virus, social distancing has also impacted many kids and teens who are ordinarily reliant on social connections.
“Adolescents are very peer-focused under ordinary circumstances,” Lisa Furst, chief program officer of Vibrant Emotional Health, told CNN in February. Furst also runs the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. “The nature of the public health measures, such as remote school and physical distancing, may impact teens and youth very significantly because they feel so isolated from their peer group.”
“We have to help young people to stay connected socially as much as possible in safe ways,” Furst continued, adding that “social distancing” is actually the opposite of what kids need. A more accurate term, she noted, would be “physical distancing,” since social and emotional closeness is “more important than ever.”
Technology certainly helps, but Furst said it’s a delicate balance to get kids connected digitally without resulting in an overload of screen time. She noted that it is up to parents to find that middle ground.
To help support parents, caregivers, and other adults serving minors, the CDC has developed a COVID-19 Parental Resource Kit to ensure children and young people’s social, emotional, and mental well-being during the pandemic.