The first comprehensive study to investigate studies on children’s and young people’s mental health utilising evidence from before and during COVID-19 identified an influence on mental health that might lead to an increase in demand for support services.
The study, coordinated by the Universities of Exeter and Cambridge, is the first to look into studies on young people’s mental health before and after the epidemic. The study sheds further light on the changes in mental health of children and adolescents of various ages throughout the world during the epidemic.
The work was financed by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) with some assistance from NIHR PenARC and published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry. Researchers gathered 51 research that examined how the epidemic affects young people’s mental health in a variety of dimensions. Importantly, rather than relying on retroactive impressions of change, most investigations incorporated information on baseline mental health acquired prior to the pandemic.
Because of the necessity for fast-paced research in the midst of a growing pandemic, the quality of the studies was uneven, with just four of the papers included classified as high quality. While the data revealed that some areas of mental health were deteriorating, the conclusions were inconsistent, with no clear trend developing.
There were conflicting findings from research that examined the same sort of mental health issue in different methods, suggesting that the impacts are not universal and are dependent on the conditions and settings of children, young people, and families. According to the researchers, the total effect is big enough to raise demand for services.
Study author Dr Tamsin Newlove-Delgado, of the University of Exeter, said: “The pandemic affected the lives of children and young people worldwide, and we’ve heard a lot of talk around the impact on mental health. Our review of the research in the field provides further evidence that already-stretched services are likely to see an increase in demand, but that perhaps things are not as bad for everyone as some headlines make them appear.
However, even a small average change in mental health symptoms for each child can mean that, on a societal level, a large number of children tip over from managing OK to needing some professional support. Children and young people must be prioritised in pandemic recovery, and explicitly considered in planning for any future pandemic response.”
The researchers discovered some evidence of worsening in a variety of broader measures of mental health, such as an increase in general issues with behaviour, emotions, or anxiety, as well as a large number of studies that showed no change and others that claimed gains in mental health.
According to the report, studies in this area is particularly challenging to understand because, progressively, mental health disorders become more widespread in adolescent than in childhood. This makes it difficult to determine if the negative effects discovered are the consequence of the youngsters in the study growing older or are directly due to the epidemic.
Co-author Professor Tamsin Ford, of the University of Cambridge, said: “Studying the whole population of children and young people means that our research may not pick up on differences between groups that may have fared better or worse during the pandemic. For example, other research has found that some children and young people reported sleeping and eating better during lockdowns, or found it easier to access remote schooling as they could work at their own pace. Others struggled with lack of structure or lack of access to remote schooling or peers.”
Dr. Abigail Russell of the University of Exeter, the study’s author, stated: “Because of the race for answers during the pandemic, a lot of research was done quickly, using opportunistic samples, such as asking people in online surveys how they thought the pandemic had affected their child’s mental health. Unfortunately, this implies that the general quality of research is relatively low, and even the articles that we included in our analysis using data from before the pandemic were not of very high quality.
“This may be partly because of the pressure to quickly publish research about the pandemic and its impacts. As a research community, we urgently need to do better by our young people who struggle with their mental health, to understand the impact on them and their families, to target support where it’s needed. In the longer term, researchers, funders and policymakers should take a more cohesive approach to supporting and conducting high-quality research.”
The report was published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and is titled ‘The influence of Covid-19 on psychopathology in children and young people worldwide: systematic analysis of studies including pre- and within-pandemic data.’