Almost one in four children living under COVID-19 lockdowns, social restrictions, and school closures are dealing with feelings of anxiety, with many at risk of lasting psychological distress, including depression. In recent surveys by Save the Children of over 6000 children and parents in the United States, Germany, Finland, Spain, and the U.K., up to 65 percent of the children struggled with boredom and feelings of isolation.
Even as several countries gradually begin lifting their lockdowns, many schools remain closed—affecting almost 1.3 billion children and students worldwide —and strict social restrictions are likely to remain in place across the globe.
This leaves children and youth who are already at risk—such as those living in challenging home environments or children who are lacking social support or whose families are already facing poverty —especially vulnerable
Research shows that feelings of helplessness, loneliness, and fear of being socially excluded, stigmatized or separated from loved ones are common in any epidemic, while prolonged stress, boredom, and social isolation, as well as a lack of outdoor play, can lead to a higher number of mental health conditions in children, such as anxiety and even depression.
“People who are outside regularly have lower activity in the part of the brain that focuses on repetitive negative emotions,” said Anne-Sophie Dybdal, Senior Child Protection Advisor at the Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Unit of Save the Children. “This is one of the reasons children can slide into negative feelings or even depression during the circumstances they are living in now.”
In the surveys recently conducted by Save the Children in the U.S. and several European countries, children reported feeling anxious, bored, and fearful. Being unable to play outside with friends or fears of falling behind in their education, added to their feelings of deprivation and anxiety.
Among other things, the surveys also revealed that:
- Nearly half (49 percent) of interviewed children in the United States said they were worried, while just over one third (34 percent) reported feeling scared, and one quarter (27 percent) felt anxious.
- Seventy percent of participating children in Finland reported experiencing feelings of anxiety, over 55 percent said they were fatigued.
- In the U.K., 20 percent of the interviewed children worried about the future due to school closures, and almost 60 percent worried that a relative might fall sick.
- In Germany, one-third (33 percent) of children said they were worried they would not be able to finish their school year.
In Spain, where Save the Children interviewed nearly 2,000 lower-income families, over a quarter of them reported higher levels of distress than normal, and many households reported their children were struggling with fear, anguish, and concern about their family’s situation.
Save the Children also spoke with an additional 60 children in Nicaragua and 68 children in Indonesia, where findings were similar. In Nicaragua, children said that they were afraid and frustrated about not being able to go to school and the possibility of family members falling ill. In Indonesia, 66 percent of the children reported they were worried about the current pandemic, especially of falling ill with the virus.
“[I feel] afraid. It is a pandemic and things are infected… and my mother goes out to work and it scares me”, said Karla, 11, from Nicaragua.
“While children are resilient, we cannot underestimate the impact the pandemic is having on their mental wellbeing and overall health,” said Marie Dahl, Head of Save the Children’s Mental Health & Psychosocial Support Unit. “Children in a stable environment are likely to fare better, but many children are not so fortunate. Those who are living in poverty, who are experiencing violence at home, or are otherwise vulnerable can really be pushed over the edge by long-lasting lockdowns—in the worst cases if left unaddressed this could escalate to depression and other mental health concerns. The mental health impacts of COVID-19 could be seen far beyond the life of the pandemic.”
Save the Children is calling on all governments to prioritize and invest in children’s mental health, wellbeing, and learning as part of their response to the outbreak. This includes support for children living in the world’s poorest and most fragile countries or conflict-affected communities, that may be less equipped to respond to the needs of children who could be separated from parents due to illness, isolation measures, or bereavement.
In addition, Save the Children is calling for:
- All children to have access to support services during and after lockdown, and prioritizing the work of social care providers, including by classifying them as essential services, so they have the resources and capacity to do their work.
- Schools, social services and authorities to monitor children during lockdowns and continue case management through remote approaches until society and schools reopen and further support can be provided. This includes ensuring distance learning accessible for all children, which should contain messages on health, hygiene, and keeping safe.
- Parents and teachers must receive support to maintain structure and routine for the children and to keep children engaged in play and learning activities in school and at home.
- Mechanisms to be in place for early detection of signs, such as sudden changes in behavior, unusual persistent sadness, excessive worry, a lack of concentration, trouble sleeping, or exhaustion, which could point toward looming mental health issues such as depression.
“Children are suffering enormous upheaval on a scale that we have not seen in this lifetime,” Dahl continued. “There have been many sudden changes to their lives and so much is yet unknown about the long-term impacts of this crisis, which requires us to be vigilant and do everything possible to limit the impact on young minds.
“While some countries are starting to re-open schools, many children are still missing out on an education. It’s important that all countries are able to detect and respond to signs of distress and depression among children during lockdown and once these children return to public life.”