The 0-18 age group is an overlooked population of COVID victims. That may be due to the fact that when they contract COVID, they are likely to survive it, with little to no serious effects in their systems (unless they have an underlying illness). However, this pandemic has affected them in other ways, ways that play a direct role in their developing minds. There have been reports of rising levels of abuse, neglect, and an increase in consultations for mental health problems.
Indeed, this generation will grow up with the devastating aftermath of the virus in tow, as they come of age and become the nation’s workforce.
Closure of schools
Schools are vital in child development. While home-schooling is an option, school is not just a place for learning technical knowledge. It is where children also learn social, interpersonal, and emotional skills. During the Education Select Committee, Prof. Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, warned that children across the board felt a range of negative emotions from isolation, loneliness, sleeping problems, and reduced physical activity.
Increased incidents of abuse
To some children, schools also serve as a refuge away from troubled homes. With lockdown guidelines and stay-at-home orders, they are stuck at home in households with parents affected by one or all the “toxic trios” – domestic abuse, substance dependency, and severe mental health issues. There were 285 reports by councils on child deaths and serious harm in April and September 2020 alone. This is alarming because the number has increased to more than a quarter of the same period in the previous year. In England and Wales, there are 2 million vulnerable children living in these households. With the rules and social workers and health visitors being unable to visit and check up on them, there is a great chance that this rate will increase if it hasn’t already.
Increased mental and emotional distress
The pandemic has also added stress to family life. With many businesses closing down, many people have lost their jobs and become forced to look for other means of employment. Financial insecurity has added strain to a household already worried about contracting such a contagious virus and not being allowed to go out and socialise with their friends to de-stress. This is especially important for adolescents, whose core group is their peers. In fact, the amount of counselling for loneliness has increased since the pandemic started. The NSPCC, which provides a Childline service, reports that cases have risen by 10%. Adolescents usually call in, expressing that they feel sad and lonely.
This is for children and adolescents with relatively normal mental health. What about the impact on those with mental health disorders?
The latest findings of the Mental Health of Children and Young People in England 2020 report state that overall, one in six children aged 5-16 years old have a probable mental health disorder. Their 2017 report stated it was only one in nine children of the above-mentioned age group.
Risk factors include family tensions, financial concerns, feeling isolated from friends, and fear about the virus.
Older teenagers and young adults (16-25-year-olds) have also reported the mental and emotional toll of the virus. As non-essential businesses keep closing, and the surviving ones have halted hiring to keep them afloat, there is a marked decrease in their prospects. It is no surprise then, that according to the Youth Index, published by the Prince’s Trust, more than half of them always or often felt anxious – the highest level ever recorded. According to Jonathan Townsend of the Prince’s Trust, they were “losing all hope for their future.|
Decreased health visits
Lockdown rules and increasing cases have also decreased health visiting services. Health visitors, such as specialist nurses are asked to help out an overwhelmed COVID front line. In some areas, there has been a decrease of at least 50% in health visitor numbers. These services are essential to check a child’s well-being, especially in the first 1,001 days.
Lack of social development for infants
The 1,001 days agenda believes that the first two to three years of life are the most crucial human development period. There are even various psychological theories that suggest that the core of personality develops at this stage.
Not only are babies not properly monitored by health visits, but they can also not develop healthy social contact that comes from interacting with other babies.
Head of Institute of Health Visiting Alison Morton states that this will have a lasting impact on child development, especially in areas with the least access for these services.
Isolation for children living with special educational needs and disabilities
The lack of available carers and specialist workers for these children also create more significant challenges for them and their families. Assistance is challenging to come by because specialists are called to the COVID front lines, and charities have cut back on their support networks. Additionally, the more immunocompromised their conditions are, the more their physical and social contact is restricted, which may make them feel more alone, frustrated, and likely to act out.
Children who require specialised classes also find it difficult to learn their lessons online, which schools have also struggled to create a fine balance.
While the UK governments have said they acknowledge and have prioritised this problem, it is not enough. In the first place, research has already shown that even before the pandemic child, mental health services are already severely lacking, with only one in three children getting the support they need. And it may grow worse due to the pandemic’s effects on accessing services and mental health.
Many people are quick to dismiss the impact on children, believing they are more likely to bounce back and adaptable to change. However, Sunil Bhopal, a child health care expert at Newcastle University, disagrees. He believes that growing up in a world where “going to the playground with your friends to play is illegal,” is emotionally damaging.
Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England, agrees, and that the governments must work on coming up with solutions that prioritise dealing with the needs of this vulnerable population.