Mental health of children and young people: the effects of Covid can no longer be ignored

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Catherine Le Nevez
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The effects of Covid-19 on children

One year after the start of the Covid-19 emergency, the effects of the pandemic on the mental health of children and young people are emerging more and more clearly and the data from the departments of child neuropsychiatry of the Del Paeseni hospitals, where the beds are now all occupied. Our kids are suffering and we can no longer ignore it!

Self-harm, suicide attempts, eating disorders, but also anxiety crises, social phobia and difficulty falling asleep, are some of the discomforts experienced by children during the pandemic, with or without lockdown. While younger people are usually protected from the physical consequences of the virus, the same cannot be said regarding the psychological consequences.

In this article

  • boom in hospitalizations in neuropsychiatry
  • the effects of the restrictions
  • the role of the school
  • the discomforts manifested by children
  • the alarm bells
  • do not trivialize the discomfort of children
  • don't be afraid to ask for help

Pandemic and mental health: hospitalizations in neuropsychiatry increase

Since the beginning of the pandemic, many child psychotherapists and neuropsychiatrists had launched an appeal to the institutions so that children, deprived of any stimulus, were not left alone. Even the Istituto Superiore di Sanità, in a report published almost a year ago, had pointed out that "stressful" factors such as isolation in the home, the prolonged closure of schools and the lack of physical contact with peers could have produced negative effects on physical and mental health of children and adolescents. But the institutions seem not to have received the message, and here, a year later, doctors and experts are forced to raise the alarm again on the psychological consequences of the pandemic.

Stefano Vicari, head of Child and Adolescent Neuropsychiatry at the Bambino Gesù Pediatric Hospital in the city, in an article in the newspaper La Repubblica stated that for weeks all the beds in his ward were occupied by boys who had attempted suicide, something that had never happened to him before.

And unfortunately this is not an isolated case. Also in the city, about a month ago, the Childhood Neuropsychiatry of the Policlinico Umberto I did not have a single free bed, so that a 16-year-old boy with a mental disorder had to wait two days in an emergency room before being hospitalized. In the rest of the country the situation is certainly not better, also because in our country the total beds dedicated to child psychiatry are only 92, very few if you think that the World Health Organization estimates that 20% of adolescents suffer from a mental disorder.

"During the pandemic, suicide attempts and cases of self-harm are increased by 30% compared to previous years ", explains the dr , psychotherapist, who works in the Neuropsychiatry Unit of Prof. Vicari. "The fault lies not with the pandemic itself, but rather with limitations that the youngest have suffered due to the emergency situation ".

Read also: Long Covid: the consequences on children

The burden of restrictions for children and teenagers

"The restrictions imposed meant that the fragility of children and young people, especially those who, even before the pandemic, were already in a situation of psychological distress and for which Covid-19 was precisely the straw that broke the camel's back ", says Dr.

There are also boys who, before the emergency, did not have any psychological disturbances and who, during the last year, were deprived of cognitive and emotional-affective stimuli, they began to develop and manifest discomfort. From one moment to the next, children and adolescents found themselves isolated, closed in their own room which, for some, has become a real refuge. There distance teaching which was meant to give students a semblance of normality, turned out to be a far from pleasant experience for many kids.

Read also: Distance learning, the risks for children and teenagers

The role of the school in the growth and well-being of children

"One of the things that hurt the children was the adoption, at least at first, of a distance teaching set up in the wrong way, that is, as a simple transposition of the entire lesson in the presence, without however the typical involvement that it is created in a classroom "explains the psychotherapist. But school is not just didactic, indeed, it is an irreplaceable experience for children and young people who can share time with their peers, thus developing positive relationships and controlling one's anxieties and fears. Without school, social moments are lacking, a fundamental pillar for psychological well-being.

"Of course, we are aware that the pandemic does not offer discounts and that therefore when the infections begin to increase the school is one of the first contexts to be put under judgment, and we all understand it - says the doctor - but the result is that our kids are getting lost and they begin to show symptoms in front of which we can not ignore it ".

Read also: Children are fed up with video calls and online lessons

Irritability, anxiety and sleep disturbances

The measures taken to contain the pandemic have produced some uncomfortable conditions in both children and adolescents. Conditions that tend to manifest themselves with anxiety disorders or crises, panic attacks and difficulties in falling asleep, but not only. "We got to visit children who have completely reversed the sleep-wake rhythm and therefore in the morning they struggle to connect to DAD. Some guys have a tendency to depressed mood, are often sad and have little desire to do and to react, while others show greater irritability "he explains. And then there are also those children who are"closed like a hedgehog", isolating themselves more and more and they have developed a real one social phobia. It can happen to those children who have experienced Covid firsthand, or their relatives and family have had it, or even children who have a sick and therefore fragile parent. In them a high anxiety has been created with respect to going out and meeting the other. "Many kids tell us they've got it the habit of never going out as if they had found a safe space in their own room "says the Child Jesus psychotherapist.

To these problems must also be added the numerous cases of eating disorders, attempted suicide and self-harm. It is therefore essential for parents to know catch all possible red flags, without diminishing the possible problem.

Read also: Self-harm and suffering, when children's pain is "voiceless"

Don't underestimate emotional and behavioral changes

Even small changes in behavior or mood could be an expression of suffering. "Sudden fits of anger, sudden changes in mood and difficulties in falling asleep are all signs that children and young people can manifest in case of discomfort - she explains - but they are also not to be underestimated. sudden headache and stomach ache because children often tend to somatize their pain ".

Among the alarm bells, there is also an increase in the time spent in front of PCs and video games, which, at times, become almost an addiction for the youngest. "A few days ago I met a little patient who told me that the greatest form of gratification of him in this period is the exceeding of the levels of video games. This thing should make us reflect".

Read also: Video game and smartphone addiction: 10 things parents ABSOLUTELY need to know

"They weren't even fighting a war"

There are still, however, those who tend to underestimate or even to trivialize the discomfort of the little ones, arguing that ultimately "they are not fighting a war," but such a thought is totally inappropriate. "Our children have been accustomed from an early age to a multiplicity of stimuli and all of a sudden we asked them to make an enormous effort: get away from school and friends, in short, from their routine, and this had a very important impact on their mental health". In fact, as also indicated in a recent Del Paeseno study published in the journal Frontiers in Psychiatry, it is estimated that over 30% of children are at high risk of post-traumatic disorder due to the pandemic.

UNICEF Director-General Henrietta Fore also stated that "with the national lockdowns and movement restrictions linked to the pandemic it has been a long year for all of us, but especially for children. […] Many children are afraid, they feel alone, anxious and worried about their future.We have to get out of this pandemic with a better approach to mental health of children and adolescents and we must begin by giving this issue the attention it deserves ".

And this is precisely what we must do: recognize that the issue of mental health is not a taboo and that mental illness is not something to be ashamed of. "Even when the health emergency ends, it will be necessary to follow children and young people - specifies the psychotherapist - perhaps thinking of interventions to promote psychological well-being to be implemented in schools, so that this period does not have long-term deleterious effects on the mental health of the boys".

Parents need not be ashamed to ask for help

And finally, it is necessary to send one last important message to parents: "if you have any doubts about the behavior and attitudes of your children, contact a child psychotherapist or neuropsychiatrist for a consultation. Do not be ashamed and do not be afraid - says the doctor - because the sooner you intervene, the lower the risk that the disorder will become chronic and serious. "If you do not want to approach these figures directly, you can also talk to your pediatrician who will be able to do a quick screening and in case he will advise you to contact a specialist. The important thing is that the problem is never diminished because with health, even with mental health, you don't mess around.

Read also: Adolescents and the pandemic: how to improve self-esteem

Sources used:

  • Consultation of Dr., psychotherapist of the Child and Adolescent Neuropsychiatry Unit of the Bambino Gesù Pediatric Hospital in the city
  • Istituto Superiore di Sanità, Interim indications for appropriate mental health support in minors during the COVID 19 pandemic, (2022)
  • Psychological Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Adults and Their Children in Italy, Frontiers in Psychiatry, (2022)
  • UNICEF, Mental health and well-being of children after nearly a year of restrictions for COVID-19, (2022)

  • uncomfortable behaviors children
  • teenagers and discomfort
  • coronavirus
  • pandemic
  • child psychology
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