The first comprehensive study to evaluate research on child and young people’s mental health, using evidence spanning before and during COVID-19, found an impact on mental health that may 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 Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, and funded by the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) with some support from NIHR PenARC. The researchers gathered 51 studies that looked at how the pandemic is affecting young people’s mental health across a range of areas. Crucially, these studies include 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 means that the standard of studies is variable, with only four of the included studies being classified as high quality.
Although the evidence suggests some deterioration for several aspects of mental health, overall the findings are mixed with no clear pattern emerging. There are mixed findings from studies that measure the same type of mental health difficulty in different ways, suggesting that effects are not universal and depend on the circumstances and contexts of children, young people and families. The researchers say the overall effect is large enough to lead to increased demand for services.
The pandemic has affected the lives of children and young people around the world, and we’ve heard a lot of talk about the impact on mental health. Our review of research in this area provides further evidence that demand for already stretched services is likely to increase, but that perhaps things are not as bad for everyone as some headlines make them seem. However, even a small average change in mental health symptoms for each child may mean that, at a societal level, a large number of children move from managing OC to needing professional support. Children and young people should be a priority in pandemic recovery and explicitly considered in planning any future pandemic response.
Dr Tamsin Newlove-Delgado, study author, University of Exeter
The researchers found some evidence of deterioration in a number of broader measures of mental health, such as increases in general problems with behaviour, emotions or anxiety, as well as finding many studies that reported no change and some reported improvements in mental health.
The paper emphasizes that research in this area is particularly difficult to interpret because mental health problems become more common in adolescence than in childhood. Therefore, it is difficult to assess the extent to which the negative impacts found are a result of the children in the studies being aged or actually related to the pandemic.
Co-author Professor Tamzin Ford of 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 who may have done better or worse during of the pandemic. For example, other research has found that some children and young people report sleeping and eating better during lockdowns, or that they find it easier to access distance learning because they can work at their own pace. struggle with a lack of structure or lack of access to distance learning or peers.”
Study author Dr Abigail Russell, of the University of Exeter, said: “The race for answers during the pandemic has meant that many studies have been carried out quickly using opportunistic sampling, for example by asking people in online surveys how they think about mental health their child’s health was 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 of very high quality.
“This may be due in part to the pressure to quickly publish research on the pandemic and its impacts. As a research community, we urgently need to improve our young people struggling with their mental health to understand the impact on them and their families in order to target support where it is needed. In the longer term, researchers, funders and policy-makers need to take a more joined-up approach to supporting and delivering high-quality research.”
The study, titled “The impact of Covid-19 on psychopathology in children and young people around the world: a systematic review of studies with pre- and intra-pandemic data”, was published in Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.