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COVID-19 linked to increase in child mental health disorders

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    25 May 2021

Cases of mental health disorders in children have increased significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic, new research has found.

A study has found that the COVID-19 pandemic coincided with a sharp increase in symptoms of mental health disorders in children aged 11 to 12.Looking at a sample representative of the general population, the study examined the mental health of adolescent children by comparing levels of emotional and behavioural problems immediately, prior to, and during the pandemic.The Wirral Child Health and Development Study (WCHADS) is led by Professor Hill, Professor Sharp, and Professor Pickles from the Universities of Reading, Liverpool, and King’s College London respectively, and funded by the UK Medical Research Council from pregnancy to age 9. The results are published in JCPP Advances.

Depression and PTSD

Children aged 11 to 12 years and their mothers, participating in the Wirral Child Health and Development Study, provided mental health data between December 2019 and March 2020 and again three months later. Of 202 participants, 89% were assessed both pre and post the initial lockdown period. Of those, 44% reported an increase in symptoms of depression, while 26% said the same about PTSD.A spike was noted in the number of girls, as well as children with prior experience of emotional problems, with depression both pre and post onset of COVID-19. However, the group that experienced the biggest increase in behavioural problems were those without any prior experience, suggesting that the onset was associated with the pandemic.


Family history

Pre-pandemic, rates of maternal and child depression were greater in families experiencing higher deprivation, but during the pandemic the results showed that they changed only in less deprived families, raising their rates to become comparable with those of the higher deprivation group. Dr Nicola Wright, Department of Biostatistics & Health Informatics at King’s College London, said: “We know that early adolescence is often a critical moment when mental health problems can begin and that is particularly pronounced for girls as they enter adolescence.“Our findings indicate that referrals for depression and disruptive behaviour problems during the pandemic are likely to be made up of two kinds of young people; those with the onset of new mental health problems for which COVID-19 related issues may be the most relevant, and others where COVID-19 has added to pre-existing vulnerability with a need for attention to both. “What’s not yet clear is whether COVID-19 exposure has simply ‘brought forward’ the first episode of depression in children who would have become depressed later in its absence. Meanwhile, the findings underline the need for a better understanding of risk and protective factors for COVID-19 related mental health problems as a basis for new treatments.”

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