The Child Mind Institute has released its annual report on children’s mental health, this year focusing on the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic. The report, The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Children’s Mental Health: What We Know So Far, looks at:

  • What is known about the pandemic’s effect on children’s mental health
  • What are the most common mental health challenges children are facing
  • What are the major risk factors for mental health issues during the pandemic
  • What the long term effects may be
  • What can be done to reduce the effects on mental health for the rest of this pandemic

As the report notes, 1 in 5 children and adolescents were already struggling with mental health issues prior to the pandemic and surveys indicate that their numbers have grown significantly during the past 18 months.

Data on mental health challenges faced by children and adolescents during the pandemic is more difficult to come by than for adults, but what is available indicates that not everyone has been affected to the same degree or in the same way. Key factors that are associated with increased reporting of stress, anxiety, and depression include:

  • Living in an area where the outbreak is more severe
  • Having a health care worker in the family
  • Family economic vulnerability, including job loss and food insecurity
  • Having pre-existing mental health challenges

The effects of the increased levels of psychological distress in children showed up most often as anxiety, depression, attention issues, and sleep disturbances.

As part of the report, the Child Mind Institute surveyed 5,646 adults, half on behalf of themselves and the other half on behalf of their children. One of the key findings of this survey is that children who lived in financially unstable households or who experienced food insecurity during the pandemic experienced worse mental health outcomes than their more financially secure peers. Secondly, the data indicated that minimizing disruptions to children’s daily routines can do a lot to protect their mental health, even in very stressful situations.

The third part of the report focused on a survey of 552 high school employees (teachers, administrators, school counselors, and nurses) and 516 teenagers ages 15 to 19. Among teachers, the biggest concerns with students emerging from the pandemic were:

  • Significant deficits in learning and academic preparation
  • Student anxiety over the return to school
  • Economic hardship being a greater challenge for those who have experienced it, even more than learning deficits and anxiety

Among the teenagers surveyed, 37% reported that the pandemic had made their mental health worse, most commonly with increases in general anxiety, feeling depressed, and social anxiety. Like their teachers, they also reported significant concerns over lost academic focus or falling behind. Non-white teens reported more concern than their white peers regarding nearly every issue coming out of the pandemic, including the negative effect on focus and academic progress, coping with loss and grief, economic struggles or food insecurity, and mental health challenges. All teens reported more concern over the mental health challenges of the pandemic than COVID-19-related physical health issues.

There are, however, some bright spots in the survey of teenagers:

  • 42% report that the pandemic increased the number of conversations they have had about mental health
  • 53% say they are comfortable discussing their mental health with their family (49% said so about friends, 26% about doctors)
  • 67% agreed with the statement, “I am hopeful that I will adapt and rebound from the challenges of the pandemic.”
  • Agreement with the statement above was almost identical between those who said their mental health had improved during the pandemic and those who said it had worsened.

You can download the full report for more information on this study.