Children's loneliness in lockdown could lead to mental health pandemic

Impact of children's loneliness today could cause depression in later years

mental health rep Representational image

While children have been largely spared from the direct health effects of COVID-19, the lockdown crisis has an adverse effect on their wellbeing. All children, of all ages, and in all countries, are being affected, in particular by the socio-economic impacts and, in some cases, by mitigation measures that may inadvertently do more harm than good. This is a universal crisis and, for some children, the impact will be life-long, says a UN report on the impact of COVID-19 on children.

Children and adolescents are likely to experience high rates of depression and anxiety long after the current lockdown and social isolation ends and clinical services need to be prepared for a future spike in demand, according to a new study into the long-term mental health effects of the lockdown.

The research, which draws on over 60 pre-existing, peer-reviewed studies into topics spanning isolation, loneliness and mental health for young people aged 4 to 21, is published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

According to the review, young people who are lonely might be as much as three times more likely to develop depression in the future than others, and that the impact of loneliness on mental health could last for at least 9 years.

The studies highlight an association between loneliness and an increased risk of mental health problems for young people. There is also evidence that duration of loneliness may be more important than the intensity of loneliness in increasing the risk of future depression among young people.

"From our analysis, it is clear there are strong associations between loneliness and depression in young people, both in the immediate and the longer term. We know this effect can sometimes be lagged, meaning it can take up to 10 years to really understand the scale of the mental health impact the COVID-19 crisis has created," said Dr Maria Loades, clinical psychologist from the Department of Psychology at the University of Bath, who led the work.

She adds, "There is evidence that it's the duration of loneliness as opposed to the intensity, which seems to have the biggest impact on depression rates in young people. This means that returning to some degree of normality as soon as possible is, of course, important. However, how this process is managed matters when it comes to shaping young people's feelings and experiences about this period. For our youngest and their return to school from this week, we need to prioritise the importance of play in helping them to reconnect with friends and adjust following this intense period of isolation."

Members of the review team, focusing on support for children's social and emotional wellbeing during and after lockdown, have wrote in an open letter to the UK Education Secretary that:

·         The easing of lockdown restrictions should be done in a way that provides all children with the time and opportunity to play with peers, in and outside of school, and even while social distancing measures remain in place.

·         Schools should be appropriately resourced and given clear guidance on how to support children's emotional wellbeing during the transition period as schools reopen and that play—rather than academic progress—should be the priority during this time.

·         The social and emotional benefits of play and interaction with peers must be clearly communicated, alongside guidance on the objective risks to children.

“Poor emotional health in children leads to long-term mental health problems, poorer educational attainment and has a considerable economic burden,” the team said in their letter.