The first comprehensive study To examine research on children and young people’s mental health using evidence from before and during COVID-19 discovered an impact on mental health that could lead to increased demand for support services.
The research, which was led by the University of Exeter and the University of Cambridge, is the first of its kind to examine research containing information on young people’s mental health before and during the pandemic. The study gives more insight into changes in the mental health of children and young people of different ages around the world during the pandemic.
The study was published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and was funded by the National Institute of Health and Care Research (NIHR) with some support from the NIHR PenARC. The researchers put together 51 studies that looked at how the pandemic is affecting young people’s mental health across a range of areas. Crucially, these studies included baseline mental health information, collected before the pandemic rather than relying on retrospective perceptions of change.
The demand for fast-paced research amid the evolving pandemic has meant that the standard of studies has been variable, with only four studies being rated as high quality.
While the evidence points to some deterioration in some aspects of mental health, in general, results have been mixed, with no clear pattern emerging. There have been mixed results from studies that measured the same type of mental health difficulty in different ways, suggesting that the effects were not general and dependent on the circumstances and contexts of children, youth, and families. The researchers say the overall effect is large enough to lead to an increase in demand for the services.
Study author Dr Tamsin Neolov-Delgadofrom the University of Exeter, said: “The pandemic has affected the lives of children and young people around the world, and we have heard a lot of talk about the impact on mental health. Our review of research in this area provides further evidence that it is likely that already extended services will see an increase in Demand, but perhaps things are not as bad for everyone as some of the headlines show.However, even a small, average change in each child’s mental health symptoms can mean that, on a societal level, a large number of children are shifting from proper management to need to some professional support. Children and young people must be prioritized in the recovery from the pandemic, and clearly taken into account when planning any future response to the pandemic.”
The researchers found some evidence of worsening across a range of broader measures of mental health, such as an increase in general problems with behaviour, emotions or anxiety, as well as finding plenty of studies that reported no change and some reports of improvement in mental health. .
The paper highlights that research in this area is particularly difficult to interpret, because developmental mental health problems become more common in adolescence than in childhood. This makes it difficult to assess to what extent the negative effects found are due to the older children in the studies or are actually related to the epidemic.
Co-author Professor Tamsin FordD., of the University of Cambridge, said: “Studying all children and young people means our research may not capture differences between groups who may fare better or worse during an epidemic. For example, other research has found that some children and young people report sleeping and eating better during periods of lockdown, or they found it easier to access distance education where they could work at their own pace. Others struggled due to a lack of structure or lack of access to distance education or peers.”
Study author Dr Abigail RussellM.D., from the University of Exeter, said: “The race for answers during the pandemic means that much of the research has been done quickly, using opportunistic samples, for example by asking people in online surveys how they think their children’s mental health has been affected by the pandemic. Unfortunately, this means that the quality of the research in general is very poor, and even the studies we included in our review with information from before the pandemic were generally not of high quality.
“This may be partly due to the pressure to quickly publish research on the pandemic and its impacts. As a research community, we urgently need to do better for our young people struggling with their mental health, to understand the impact on them and their families, and to direct support where needed. In the long term, researchers must funders and policy makers a more coherent approach to supporting and conducting high-quality research.”
The study is titled “The Impact of Covid-19 on Psychopathology in Children and Youth Worldwide: A Systematic Review of Studies with Pre- and Within-Pandemic Data,” published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.