Professor John Sharry, Psychotherapist, Clinical Consultant for SilverCloud® by Amwell® and Adjunct Professor, Department of Psychology University College Dublin, walks us through some mental health issues in children
Even before Covid-19, mental health problems such as anxiety and depression in children and young people were on the rise (1). Since COVID-19, this increase has increased dramatically. A large global meta-study found that rates of depression and anxiety in children had doubled by 2021 (2). This has increased the burden on children and families and services have been stretched to their limits. In 2021, the health service in Ireland saw a more than 30% increase in the number of young people seeking treatment and being hospitalized for eating disorders in 2021 (3). Unfortunately, there seems to be no end to the post-COVID mental health challenges. Two years of lockdowns, school closures and missed social opportunities continue to take their toll.
Teenagers are acutely affected at such a crucial stage of their development where socialization is vital.
A recent study by the Prince’s Trust (4) of more than 2,000 young people aged 16 to 25 details the detrimental effects on their education, self-confidence and hope for a positive future. Most feel they have missed out and are much more uncertain about the future. In another large survey by the Sutton Trust and UCL (5), 50% of young people reported that they had not made up for missed learning and were more demotivated and uncertain about their next steps. Of particular concern was that young people from disadvantaged backgrounds were disproportionately affected.
The evidence is clear. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to cast a long shadow on young people’s well-being, self-confidence and educational attainment, resulting in a significant increase in mental health problems among children. It is essential that policy makers and planners understand these challenges so that education and mental health services can be adequately resourced to help young people and their families through this post-pandemic period.
Parents and teachers supporting children
It is also important for parents and teachers to realize that they play a vital role in supporting children and teenagers during these difficult times. Rather than downplaying or dismissing a child’s demotivation or withdrawal in the classroom, take the time to understand and appreciate what they are going through. Rather than expecting children and teens to return to health post-COVID, it’s critical to realize the scale they’ve been affected and provide patient support.
Second, it is vital for parents and caregivers that you focus on maintaining communication and a warm relationship with your children and especially with your teens in order to reduce mental health problems in children. Instead of increasing the pressure on them, try to create relaxing “relationship moments” with each of your children when you can chat and have some fun together.
This is more important than adding pressure to perform in education. Make sure you have daily times when you can listen to their news and what’s going on in their world. With teens who rarely talk, you need to be patient and work hard to create these ‘communication opportunities’, whether it be by being available when they get home from school or at mealtimes, or late at night, they can be more relaxed or by agreeing to be their driver to an activity when they might talk more!
Third, encourage your kids to do activities they enjoy and are passionate about. Fun and passion are the antidote to mental health problems in children, such as depression and anxiety. Simple daily tasks can create meaningful, enjoyable routines, such as reading, cooking, walking the dog, listening to music, or watching a favorite TV show. Be sure to research what your kids like. Don’t just think about the obvious extracurricular activities like sports, but also remember the many different social passions children can have, such as scouting, gaming, quizzes, babysitting, drama or even singing in a choir! Find out what each of your children likes and what improves their mood.
Take care of your mental health
Finally, take care of your mental health as a parent or caregiver. Parental self-care is not only good for you, but also good for children. The more positive you feel, the better you will be able to educate and listen to your children. So prioritize yourself and seek support when you need it.
1. My World Survey2 The National Study of Youth Mental Health in Ireland. www.myworldsurvey.ie
2. Global prevalence of depressive and anxiety symptoms in children and adolescents during COVID-19A meta-analysis. JAMA
pediatrician 2021;175(11):1142-1150. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2021.2482