COVID-19 is putting great pressure on children’s mental health and wellbeing, and on their engagement with learning. The effects are increasingly visible and will be long lasting.
New analysis by Save the Children, using data from the Oxford COVID-19 Government ResponseTracker, reveals that children globally have lived under required and recommended nationwide lockdowns for an average of six months, or 184 days since the COVID-19 pandemic started in early 2020.
Children in Venezuela have faced one of the longest periods at home, with intermittent lockdowns keeping children inside for up to 16 months.1 In Lebanon, children were confined to their homes for 418 days.2 Across Zimbabwe, children were in lockdown for nearly nine months this year alone.
While the analysis showed that on average Australian children spent 60 days in lockdown, the figure varies dramatically across states and territories. Children in Melbourne have spent 251 days in lockdown since the start of the pandemic and for many children the pandemic is compounding significant existing challenges. This includes children who experienced the 2019-20 bushfires and are still only in the early stages of psychological recovery. It also includes children who were already struggling to engage with learning or experiencing socio-economic disadvantage or other complexity in their circumstances.
Paul Ronalds, Save the Children Australia CEO, said:
“Children are resilient, but they are also uniquely vulnerable in disasters like the Black Summer bushfires and the COVID-19 pandemic. They have specific needs, and require specialist support to recover. Schools are ideal settings for providing this support. Yet school systems are already heavily overburdened. Specialist programs are urgently needed to complement existing efforts.
“We need to support the wellbeing of all children and ensure all children are engaged with learning. Children must also be heard and meaningfully participating in decisions made in their communities.
“Students who are engaged with learning – behaviourally, emotionally and cognitively – have better mental health, wellbeing, educational and life outcomes. Australia’s high rates of student disengagement are a national crisis that COVID-19 threatens to turn into a generational rupture. Australia needs a coherent national strategy, along with aligned State and Territory strategies, to keep students engaged with learning.
“Enhanced wellbeing promotes better engagement with learning, and enhanced engagement in turn improves wellbeing, creating a positively reinforcing two-way cycle.”
Save the Children is warning that extended lockdowns are taking a devastating toll on children’s mental health globally and is urging all governments to include mental health and psychosocial support for children and adolescents in national health services.
Children who experience long-term lockdowns are at increased risk of emotional distress, loneliness, and abuse, as well as lack of outdoor play and access to mental health support. In some cases, prolonged stress, uncertainty, and social isolation can also lead to anxiety, aggression, withdrawn behaviour, or even depression and self-harm.
Marie Dahl, Head of Save the Children’s Mental Health & Psychosocial Support Unit, said:
“A global mental health crisis is unfolding, and for some children its harmful effects may be catastrophic. Children living in poverty or already in disadvantaged or otherwise vulnerable situations are at greater risk of the damaging consequences of long-lasting lockdowns.
“Being deprived of social stimulation can severely impact children’s mental health and development. While lockdown orders are important to curb the spread of COVID-19, social isolation can cause feelings of hopelessness, anxiety and depression among children. Failure to respond to this mental health crisis could leave children with long-term wellbeing, development and overall poor health implications even after restrictions are lifted.”
A survey of over 13,000 children in 46 countries carried out by Save the Children in September last year found that 83% of children reported an increase in negative feelings due to the pandemic. Reports of negative feelings were far higher for the vast majority of children (96%) when schools had been closed for 17 to 19 weeks.
Since then, the situation for many children has worsened as countries have battled third or fourth waves of the virus, lockdowns have continued, and schools in some countries have been closed for over 18 months.
In India, which has recorded more than 448,000 COVID-19 deaths, children across the country have spent at least 100 days at home.45 To support children’s mental health in India, Save the Children set up a free counselling helpline for children and young people struggling in the pandemic. The helpline has received more than 2,900 calls this year. Stress, anxiety and boredom, as well as uncertainty towards the future, are among the top concerns raised on the helpline.
“I usually get calls from children related to how [the] pandemic has taken a toll on them and their studies. It is clearly stressful for the children to stay at home doing nothing. It has also led to more and more anger issues in children,” said Isha, a helpline counsellor with Save the Children.
Children in nearly every country have endured some form of lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic. In high-income countries like Canada, some children have stayed indoors for a total of 13 months or 402 days.6 Although high-income countries have better access to mental health support, children in these countries can also experience disruptions in their online education, sleeping cycles, play routines and social interactions, as well as a heightened risk of harm online. All of these factors can put children’s mental health at risk.
Save the Children wants all governments to prioritize and invest in children’s mental health, wellbeing and learning during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. The organisation is also calling for children’s mental health and wellbeing to be acknowledged as a right, urging governments to tackle stigma and human rights violations of children with mental health conditions and psychosocial disabilities.
With the right care and support, many children who are experiencing elevated distress due to the pandemic will be able to recover and reach their full potential.
However, Ms Dahl from Save the Children said mental health and psychosocial support as part of health, education and protection services must be urgently funded to better respond to future lockdowns, as well as other emerging challenges, especially in low- and middle-income countries. Without it, it could lead to serious mental health and development consequences for the next generation.
1 Children in Venezuela were under required and recommended lockdowns for a total of 491 days, or 16 months.
2 In Lebanon, children were confined to their homes during nationwide required lockdowns for 418 days, or nearly 60 weeks. When looking at both required and recommended lockdowns for Lebanon, children spent up to 510 days at home.
3 Children in Zimbabwe experienced nationwide lockdowns for 266 days, or 8.7 months, in 2021 as of 1 October.
4 Children in India have spent 102 days at home in nationwide, required lockdowns.
5 According to WHO, 448,997 people have died of COVID-19 in India as of 28 September, 2021: https://covid19.who.int/region/searo/country/in
6 In Canada, children were kept inside for up to 402 days during nationwide lockdowns where children were recommended not to leave their house.
Notes to the editor:
- The Oxford Covid-19 Government Response Tracker (OxCGRT) of the Oxford University - Blavatnik School of Government collects systematic information on policies governments have taken to respond to the pandemic since 2020. We use the publicly available data (accessed on 1 October 2021 via Github) to study national-level data of its stringency index, specifically indicator C6 which records orders to "shelter-in-place" and otherwise confined to the home. We count for each country the number of days since the beginning of 2020 of which the population was either required not to leave the house (required not leaving the house either with exceptions for essential trips/exercises etc. or with only minimal exceptions) or at least recommended not to leave the house (which includes the previous case as well). We do not consider stay-at-home orders or recommended lockdowns in place if those were only applied only to a part of the population. The regional/global averages are weighted by the child population in 2017 (population data from the United Nations).
- The analysis excludes the following countries due to lack of data: Antigua and Barbuda, Armenia, British Virgin Islands, Comoros, Equatorial Guinea, Grenada, Guinea-Bissau, The Democratic People's Republic of Korea, Maldives, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Montenegro, Nauru, North Macedonia, Palau, Samoa, Sao Tome and Principe, St Kitts and Nevis, St Lucia, St Vincent and the Grenadines, Turks and Caicos Islands, Tuvalu.
- Despite the alarming rates of mental health conditions globally, governments have long underinvested in mental health care, leaving up to 50% of mental illness untreated in developed countries. For developing countries this increases to between 76 and 85%. Untreated Mental Illnesses: The Causes and Effects | Princeton Public Health Review
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