Understanding rising rates of childhood mental health issues

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Professor John Sharry, Psychotherapist, Amwell® SilverCloud® Clinical Consultant and Adjunct Professor in the Department of Psychology at University College Dublin, walks us through some childhood mental health issues

Even before Covid-19, mental health issues like anxiety and depression for children and young people were on the rise (1). Since COVID-19, that increase has increased dramatically. A large global meta-study found that rates of childhood depression and anxiety doubled in 2021 (2). This has increased the burden on children and families, and services have been stretched to the breaking point. In 2021, the Health Service in Ireland experienced an increase of over 30% in the number of young people seeking treatment and being hospitalized for eating disorders in 2021 (3). Sadly, there seems to be no respite from post-COVID mental health challenges. Two years of lockdowns, school closures and missed social opportunities continue to take their toll.

Teenagers were acutely affected at such a crucial stage of their development, when socialization is vital.

A recent Prince’s Trust survey (4) of over 2,000 young people aged 16-25 described in detail the adverse impact on their education, confidence and hope for a positive future. Most feel they have lost and are much more insecure about the future. In another large study carried out by the Sutton Trust and UCL (5), 50% of young people reported that they had not made up for lost learning and were more unmotivated and unsure 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 over the well-being, confidence and educational attainment of young people, resulting in significant increases in childhood mental health issues. It is essential that policymakers and planners understand these challenges so that education and mental health services can be adequately resourced to support young people and their families in this post-pandemic period.

Parents and teachers supporting children

It is also important that parents and teachers realize their crucial role in supporting children and adolescents in 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 the child is going through. Rather than waiting for children and teens to ‘regain’ health after COVID, it is critical to realize the scale of how they have been affected and provide patient support.

Second, for parents and caregivers, it is vital that you focus on maintaining communication and a warm relationship with your children and especially your teens to reduce childhood mental health issues. Instead of increasing the pressure on them, try creating relaxing ‘relationship times’ with each of your children when you can talk and have fun together.

This is more important than increasing pressure to succeed in education. Make sure you have daily moments where you can hear the news and what’s going on in their world. With teenagers who rarely talk, you have to be patient and work hard to create these ‘communication opportunities’, whether it’s by being available when they come home from school or during meals, or late at night, they may be more relaxed or agreeing to be their driver on an activity where they can talk more!

Third, please encourage your children to do activities that they enjoy and are passionate about. Pleasure and passion are the antidotes to childhood mental health issues like depression and anxiety. Simple daily tasks can provide meaningful and enjoyable routines like reading, cooking, walking the dog, listening to music, or watching a favorite TV show. Make sure you explore what your kids like. In addition to the obvious extracurricular activities like sports, remember the many different social passions kids can have like scouts, games, quizzes, looking after other kids, drama, or even singing in a choir! Find out what each of your children likes and what excites them.

Take care of your mental health

Finally, take care of your mental health as a parent or caregiver. In addition to being good for you, parental self-care is good for children. The more positive you feel, the better you will be able to care for and listen to your children. So prioritize yourself and seek support when you need it.

1. My World Survey2 The National Survey of Youth Mental Health in Ireland. www.myworldsurvey.ie
2. Global prevalence of depressive and anxiety symptoms in children and adolescents during the COVID-19A meta-analysis. JAMA
Pediatr. 2021;175(11):1142-1150. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2021.2482
3. https://www.irishtimes.com/news/ireland/irish-news/covid-19-perfect-storm-for-teenage-eating-disorders-figures-show-1.4660342
4. https://www.princes-trust.org.uk/about-the-trust/news-views/princestrustnatwestyouthindex2023
5. https://cosmostudy.uk/publications/health-impacts-and-behaviours

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Understanding rising rates of childhood mental health issues

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