(29 July 2021, FLORENCE) From the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, concerns about its impact on the mental health of children and young people were widespread. While the evidence is still emerging, there are many signs it could be severe and widespread. Faced with a potential “pandemic within a pandemic”, evidence-informed responses are urgently needed to support mental health.
A new report by UNICEF Innocenti, ‘Mind Matters: Lessons from past crises for child and adolescent mental health during COVID-19’, reviews the impact of past crises (such as natural disasters and the HIV epidemic) on youth mental health with the aim of informing responses to the current crisis. A second report – Life in Lockdown – to be released later this year (protocol available here), will synthesize the evidence on COVID-19’s impact on youth mental health.
“Too many children and young people, rich and poor alike, in all four corners of the world are experiencing mental ill health as we have never seen before. This is the silent emergency of our times. It has no borders and requires urgent attention.” – Henrietta H Fore
The review finds that children and young people are at elevated risks of anxiety and depression, trauma, loneliness and isolation, suicide, and loss, which can have acute and long-lasting effects on child and adolescent mental health. Interventions to address these adverse impacts include rapid screening, parenting programmes, community and school-based programmes, and using digital tools and platforms. These interventions must be mindful of ages and stages. For example, younger children may struggle to process the temporal nature of the pandemic, whereas older children understand the implications of the pandemic more fully, which can elevate anxieties.
“Accelerator interventions” that combine interventions with other health care services and through common delivery platforms, such as schools, can address multiple aspects of children’s mental health simultaneously and reap benefits beyond the sum of those achieved through individual interventions. A review of 158 studies confirm key accelerating measures for improving mental health: interpersonal skills, emotional regulation, and direct alcohol and drug education.
As is often the case, the most vulnerable children and adolescents are likely to be hardest hit by mental health impacts. There is substantive evidence that COVID-19’s biggest impact on children is on their socioeconomic environment, including access to social services, household poverty, and mobility restrictions. These children and adolescents should receive particular attention through screening and targeting of interventions.
“All my plans are cancelled which means I have nothing to look ahead to and you find yourself trapped in a void of your own thoughts” – Anonymous, UK
The review notes a paucity of evidence on youth mental health, particularly for younger children. While the COVID-19 crisis is generating many studies on the topic, many are methodologically weak. The crisis provides an opportunity to generate rigorous evidence on a topic that until recently had been mostly overlooked. This new evidence should showcase the voices of young people who serve as a vibrant guide to their experience, their solutions, and their priorities.
Visit our COVID-19 Rapid Research Response website. Browse hundreds of entries on COVID-19 and mental health in our Research Library and read our Research Digest on the topic. Listen to our podcast with mental health youth leaders to learn what they think is needed to better support youth mental health.