COVID-19 could cause a children’s mental health crisis

Children don’t appear to be as affected by COVID-19 as adults, but the pandemic could cause a huge mental health crisis among the young

If there is one silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s that unlike with other respiratory illnesses like influenza, infants and children seem to be far less affected than others. Data from the Chinese Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention revealed that, of their confirmed COVID-19 cases, 0.9 per cent were in children under the age of 10 and 1.2 per cent were in kids aged between 10 and 19.

But there is another aspect of the COVID health crisis that could leave deep and lasting scars on young people: the mental health repercussions. “Mental health is a big issue now,” warned Henrietta Holsman Fore, Executive Director at UNICEF. She was speaking at the UN Global Compact Leaders Summit. “Children’s mental health has become very high on our agenda, and is something we need to be addressing as a system.”

In order to halt the spread of the coronavirus, Governments around the world have closed down daycares and schools. It has been a challenging time for parents, as they attempt to balance their paid work duties with their caregiving and homeschooling responsibilities, but it has been especially difficult for children, Ms. Fore said.

“Children are having a difficult time with schools being out of session,” the UNICEF Executive Director pointed out. “It is hard ona child when they don’t see their friends, they don’t have a regular routine, they’re not learning, they’re not sure they’re going to be able to get back into school.” According to UNESCO, over 60 per cent of the world’s student population have been affected and find themselves studying at home.

More worryingly, Ms. Fore highlighted that for many children, a lack of access to basic supplies, equipment and high-speed internet makes learning at home difficult. Even in a wealthy country like the US, it is estimated that 9 million children don’t have internet access at home, making it all but impossible for them to keep up with their studies.

“If they are one of the lucky children, which is half of the world, they have access digitally to school, and so some of them are ableto download their lesson plans and continue learning,” Ms. Fore said. “But for many others — half of the world — they are not connected online.”

While that’s hugely concerning, it also highlights one of the ways Governments and the private sector can work to help ease the mental health burden for young people, especially in the event of future pandemics and lockdowns.

“The largest, most important area that we think we can come out stronger after COVID is if we can get distance learning available for every school on this planet and every learner on this planet,” Ms. Fore told participants. “If we could, we think it could be the great equalizer.”

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