The global pandemic is one of the most studied topics among scholars interested in the social and cultural implications of COVID-19. It provides an experiment on its effects on society. Along with adults and the elderly, children, and adolescents around the world faced many challenges during the coronavirus pandemic. Young people may appear to be less at risk for severe symptoms of the virus. However, their mental health and lives have still been significantly disrupted. From school closures and disconnection from peers to the emotional, social, and educational implications of the pandemic and the lockdowns.
Many studies have reported fluctuating mental health and suicide risk during the COVID-19 Pandemic. But only a few focused on children and adolescents under the age of 18 (Ford et al., 2021). Different areas of thematic areas have been researched by those studies. They include mental health effects of school closures, mental health effects for quarantined children, stress experienced by students due to postponement of exams, and stress on children living in poverty.
Various Social Sciences disciplines recognize this new issue related to the impact of the pandemic on mental health. Anthropologists can make contributions to the biological and social complexities of COVID-19 by exploring and documenting modern human history (Higgins et al., 2020). Social Sciences, including anthropology, can also be useful for responding to the emerging pandemic and how to prepare for the next global health emergency (Ennis-McMillan and Hedges, 2020).
Data on the mental health of children and adolescents before COVID-19
According to Erskine et al. (2016), the average global coverage of prevalence data for mental disorders in children and adolescents is 6.5%. Out of 187 countries, 124 had no data about any disorder. Despite the fact that children and adolescents make up almost a quarter of the global population, there is very limited data on the estimates in relation to this issue. Many low- and middle-income countries are underrepresented in the available data. The global coverage increased between 2010 and 2013, as new countries provided data. However, this differs between disorders.
In 2014, the World Health Organization estimated that over half of all cases of mental health disorders begin by the age of 14, but the majority remain untreated well into adulthood (WHO in Erskine et al., 2016). This has been supported by data found by NHS Digital. Back in 2017, in the UK, only a quarter (25.2%) of 5-29-year-olds with a mental health condition had contact with a mental health specialist during that year. This means that three-quarters hadn’t had any contact with mental health services (Young Minds, 2018).
In the UK, the mental health of children and adolescents was deteriorating before the pandemic. There was an increase in anxiety, depression, and self-harm, especially among girls between 2004 and 2017. Rates of suicide among children and adolescents in the UK have also been increasing since the pandemic. The prevalence of 5-15-year-olds experiencing emotional disorders (such as anxiety and depression) has increased by 48% between 2004 and 2017. In addition to this, in 2017, an estimated 22.4% of young women aged 17-19 had an emotional disorder (Young Minds, 2018).
The impact of the pandemic on mental health
The COVID-19 pandemic forced us to face stressful and overwhelming challenges. Both adults and children had to cope with strong emotions, stress, isolation, and loneliness. It is known that stress can affect the feeling of fear, anger, sadness, worry, numbness, or frustration; it can affect appetite, energy, interests, and desires; decrease concentration and ability to sleep’ it can lead to physical pain (including headaches, stomach aches, and skin rashes); it can worsen chronic health problems and mental health conditions; and it can lead to abuse of tobacco, alcohol and other substances.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone felt some sort of stress, anxiety, grief, or worry. Children and young adults are particularly at risk of developing anxious symptoms (Orgiles et al. in Saladino et al., 2020). According to the research involving 1,143 parents of Italian and Spanish children, ranging in age from 3-18), parents observed significant emotional and behavioral changes in their children during quarantine. The symptoms were especially related to lack of concentration (over 76%), boredom (52%), irritability (39%), restlessness (almost 39%), nervousness (38%), sense of loneliness (over 31%), uneasiness (over 30%), and worries (over 30%).
Factors that contribute to the worsening of mental health during COVID-19
The risks of the COVID-19 pandemic are highest for certain groups of children. Already existing risks, such as reduced access to healthy food, family stress, lack of contact with supportive adults are much more far-reaching now. Meanwhile, protective factors, such as school placements, access to play spaces, and a strong child protection system are significantly reduced. Thus, the COVID-19 outbreak exacerbated issues, such as household poverty, overcrowded housing, social isolation, intimate partner violence, and parental substance abuse. Furthermore, changes in circumstances and activities, such as lockdown, school closures, parents taking additional work, or losing jobs have a significant impact on the mental health of children and adolescents around the world.
In addition to this, child protection providers in some members of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries (OECD) record large decreases in reporting concern for children’s safety and welfare. This is because, due to social distancing, face-to-face contact is significantly reduced, meaning child protection services find it difficult to work with vulnerable children and families and assess risks. In turn, children are deprived of their liberty, as it is difficult for them to access justice due to judicial system delays (Ramos and Scrapetta, 2020).
Across OECD countries, on average, one in seven children grow up in poverty. The issue of poverty and income inequality is one of the main factors that have a large negative impact on children’s mental health. During COVID-19, it means poorer families are disproportionally disadvantaged as they are more exposed to jobs and earning losses, and children are affected by school closures. Poverty during the pandemic affects access to various necessities, including good nutrition, sanitation, good standards of living, space to study and play, and opportunities to engage in online education. This can have a further negative impact on children and adolescents’ mental health, leading to disturbed sleep, nightmares, agitation, and inattention. Such issues are especially prominent among children and adolescents from poor areas in countries with large income gaps, as well as developing countries. Poverty can fuel health-related problems and lead to stresses that can negatively impact the mental health of children and adolescents (Ramos and Scarpetta, 2020).
A study conducted in 2020, by NHS Digital in England suggests that almost 64% of 11 to 16-year-old girls with a probable mental disorder had seen or heard an argument among adults in the household. In comparison, almost 47% of those unlikely to have a mental disorder had seen or heard an argument among the adults in the household. Children with probable mental health problems are more likely to be living in households that reported problems with family functioning (NHS Digital, 2020). During COVID-19, an increased number of families experienced family functioning problems, due to house confinement and additional issues, such as financial problems and general uncertainty.
Access to education and health services
Online schooling played a significant part in overcoming problems related to the COVID-19 Pandemic. Social distancing meant no traditional education for children and adolescents, which had an impact on mental well-being and feelings of loneliness, isolation, and worry among the global population. Children in impoverished countries and communities are less likely to attend digital classes during such school closures, meaning that they are at a higher risk of developing anxiety related to dropping out of school (Ramos and Scarpetta, 2020).
About one in five children in OECD countries are foreign-born or have at least one foreign-born parent. According to Ramos and Scarpetta (2020), migrant status can make children particularly vulnerable to the risks that COVID-19 has brought. This is again hugely impacted by poverty as almost half of all children from OECD countries that live in immigrant families live below the relative poverty line. Immigrant parents tend to have less stable jobs, some are undocumented and therefore have no access to health care, meaning that they are more likely to experience distress in relation to the pandemic. Language barriers mean that immigrants are unable to access relevant information and it is a lot more difficult for them to support children in homeschooling.
Social distancing, lockdowns, and self-isolation increased the feeling of loneliness and depression among the global population. Both adults and children had to learn to adapt to a new way of socializing, through video calls. A decrease in social interactions has a negative impact on the mental health of the majority of people. However, this is especially challenging for children living in poverty and overcrowded households.
The study by NHS Digital (2020) found that most 11 to 16 year olds felt that lockdown has made their life worse (almost 43%). About 30% have reported no change. Household confinement is especially challenging for children living in poor housing. On average, one in five children between 0 and 17 years old live in an overcrowded household in European OECD countries. Housing problems such as overcrowding, mold, humidity, noise, and crime make social distancing and proper self-isolation unmanageable (Ramos and Scarpetta, 2020). Such issues lead to various mental health problems among children and adolescents, including difficulty concentrating and irritability.
Despite the fact that social media usage has been found to have decreased among teenagers during COVID-19, the media is still a significant contributor to mental health problems. Social media and traditional media outlets during the period of the outbreak of COVID-19 were used to educate people on transmission dynamics, symptoms of the virus, and the time when people should seek medical help. Unfortunately, increased media coverage in regard to the pandemic has been one of the biggest factors contributing to depression and anxiety among children and adolescents. In addition to this, exposure of children and teenagers to fake news, social media rumors, disinformation, and misinformation brought even further stress and worry and negatively impacted the mental health of all social groups.
Communication continues to play a key part in times of global pandemic, fueling fear and uncertainty. It is known that social media consumption correlates with depression, secondary trauma, and other mental health problems. During the pandemic, people were repeatedly presented with information regarding the spread of the virus, the number of deaths and cases, and so on. Evidence suggests, that if individuals are repeatedly exposed to topics such as the negative impacts of an infectious disease outbreak, they are more likely to experience anxiety and depression (Neill et al., 2021).
There are estimated to be over 1 million children and young people experiencing bereavement due to COVID-19. According to research, prolonged grief disorder can lead to stigmatization. Young people feel more alone than any other age group, especially in the United Kingdom, United States, and parts of Europe. Conversations about death are continuing to be discouraged in these cultures, meaning that young people living in an individualistic society experience further loneliness and are more likely to suffer from depression, anxiety and make a suicide attempt after their loss.
Cultural significance in Anthropology
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the way we’re living as well as our interpersonal relationships. It has a negative impact on the world economy, hitting children hard by causing a rise in child poverty. Lockdown also brought significant changes to our daily life, with parents often struggling to allocate their time to childcare. Many parents have to cope with their and their children’s mental health issues. It is clear that COVID-19 has targeted families in extreme poverty first.
Economic, social, and psychological shocks experienced around the world are continuing to be documented by new studies. Social Sciences such as Anthropology, Communication, Economics, and Social Psychology are important contributors to understanding how to combat problems caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Meanwhile, governments around the world are introducing policies aiming to ease the negative impact of the virus.
Despite the limited research on the effects of the pandemic on the mental health of children and adolescents, the available data clearly shows that the 2019 Corona Virus Disease outbreak caused significant psychological distress among the general public and especially among children and adolescents. Facing problems, such as the pandemic, and mourning requires other people. Therefore, the data available shows that it should be our priority to find ways to give children and adolescents a sense of belonging so they can feel like they are part of a wider community. The pandemic can be used as a powerful opportunity to reawaken collective structures and help vulnerable children and young people cope during their dark moments.
Ennis-McMillan, M., C. and Hedges, K. (2020) Pandemic Perspectives: Responding to COVID-19. Open Anthropology, 8 (1).
Erskine, H. E. et al. (2020) The Global Coverage of Prevalence Data for Mental Disorders in Children and Adolescents. Epidemiology and Psychiatric Sciences. 26 (4). Available: Cambridge Core
Ford, T. et al. (2021) Mental Health of Children and Young People During Pandemic. Cambridge: University of Cambridge. Available: bmj.com
Higgins, R. et al. (2020) An Anthropology of the COVID-19 Pandemic. Anthropology Now. 12 (1). Available: tandfonline.com
Neill, R., D., et al. (2021) Media consumption and mental health during COVID-19 lockdown: a UK cross-sectional study across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Available: SpringerLink
NHS Digital (2020) Mental Health of Children and Young People in England, 2020. Available: digital.nhs.uk
Ramos, G., and Scarpetta, S. (2020) Combatting COVID-19’S Effect on Children. Available: oecd-ilibrary.org
Young Minds (2018) New Figures Show A Rise In Young People’s Mental Health Problems Since 2004. Available: youngminds.org.uk