The first comprehensive study to evaluate research into the mental health of children and young people using evidence spanning before and during COVID-19 has found an impact on mental health that could lead to increased demand for support services.
The research, led by the University of Exeter and the University of Cambridge, is the first to examine research that has information on young people’s mental health before and during the pandemic. The study provides 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 funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) with some support from NIHR PenARC. Researchers compiled 51 studies that looked at how the pandemic affected young people’s mental health across a variety of domains. Most importantly, these studies included baseline mental health information collected before the pandemic rather than relying on retrospective perceptions of change.
The demand for rapid research amid the evolving pandemic meant that the standard of the studies was variable, with only four of the studies included as being of high quality.
Although the evidence suggested some decline for some aspects of mental health, the findings were generally mixed, with no clear pattern emerging. There were mixed findings from studies that measured the same type of mental health problem in different ways, suggesting that the effects were not universal and depended on the circumstances and contexts of children, young people and families. Researchers say the overall effect is large enough to result in an increased demand for services.
The pandemic has affected the lives of children and young people worldwide, and we’ve heard a lot of talk about 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 things may not be as bad for everyone as some headlines make them appear. However, even a small average change in mental health symptoms for each child could mean that, at a societal level, a large number of children tip from managing OC to needing some professional support. Children and young people must be prioritized in pandemic recovery, and explicitly considered in planning for any future pandemic response.”
Dr Tamsin Newlove-Delgado, Study Author, University of Exeter
The researchers found evidence for deterioration across a range of broader measures of mental health, such as an increase in overall problems with behaviour, emotions or anxiety, as well as finding many studies that reported no change and some that reported improvements in mental health. .
The paper emphasizes that research in this area is particularly difficult to interpret, because developmental mental health problems have become more common in adolescence than childhood. This makes it difficult to determine the extent to which the negative impacts found are the result of children in the studies getting older or are actually related to the pandemic.
Co-author Professor Tamsin Ford, from the University of Cambridge, said: “Studying the whole population of children and young people means that our research may not pick up differences between groups that may have fared better or worse during the pandemic. For example, other research found that some children and young people reported sleeping and eating better during lockdowns, or that it was easier to access remote schooling as they could work at their own pace.Others struggled with a lack of structure or lack of access to remote schooling or peer group.”
Study author Dr Abigail Russell, from the University of Exeter, said: “The race for answers during the pandemic meant that a lot of research was done quickly using opportunistic samples, for example by asking people in online surveys how they thought their child’s mental health has been affected by the pandemic Unfortunately, this means that the quality of research is generally quite poor, and even the studies we included in our review with information from before the pandemic were generally not very not high quality.
“This may be partly due to the pressure to quickly publish research on the pandemic and its impact. As a research community, we urgently need to do better by our young people struggling with their mental health, to understand the impact on them and their mental health understand. families, to direct support where it is needed. In the longer term, researchers, funders and policy makers need to take a more coherent approach to supporting and carrying out high quality research.”
The study is entitled ‘The impact of Covid-19 on psychopathology in children and young people worldwide: systematic review of studies with pre- and intra-pandemic data’, published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.