Nearly eight months have passed since COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO), and now a UNICEF report published last month has revealed that the pandemic’s indirect consequences may pose a greater threat to children and teens than the virus itself. While children and adolescents (under 20 years old) accounted for 11 percent of the COVID-19 infections in 87 surveyed countries, more serious, “threats to children’s health, however, are caused by the disruptions in critical services that protect and support children and young people caused by efforts to contain the virus,” as said by UNICEF in their “Averting a Lost COVID Generation” report.
Children and teens are still susceptible to COVID-19, however, the extent is currently undetermined due to varying levels of exposure, age aggregation, and phases of quarantine in the studies available. What is clear from the report is that “70 per cent of mental health services for children and adolescents are disrupted,” placing many young people at risk of suffering from a mental health condition—principally as they typically manifest during puberty.
In response to slowing the spread of COVID-19, exigent societal inequalities have left school children without access to digital resources to learn virtually, unable to contact a counselor or mental health professional, and isolated from peer support. Furthermore, research shows an association between loneliness and mental health problems, most significantly with depression, in children and teens. Compared to last year, the CDC has found that mental health visits to emergency departments for children between the ages of five to 11 increased roughly 24 percent and 31 percent for children aged 12 to 17 years this year.
Stacking social issues with financial instability adds fuel to the fire, but the relatively unspoken consequences of delayed medical treatments for children or teens living with a physical difference ignites a uniquely stressful experience for the entire family. After undergoing surgery in January to insert tissue expanders in her five-year-old son, Louis, Camp Cosmos mother Haley Shumaker was ready for a few weeks of fills before his final surgery until the pandemic hit. Looking forward to the last phase of invasive medical treatments for Louis, Haley and her husband faced a new obstacle in caring for their son when his surgery was delayed, leaving them out of control and uncertain of the next steps.
“He understood, you know, that he had balloons in his head, and we would visit the doctor a lot. But what was especially hard for us as parents was knowing that there was this prolonged pause on filling his tissue expanders and making progress towards their removal and his eventual reconstructive surgery, which we had honestly been waiting for since birth,” said Haley.
The overwhelming loss of emotional, financial, and social stability for children and teens due to the pandemic creates a severe threat to their psychological well-being. When a child or teen living with a physical difference is already at risk for social isolation and self-esteem issues, indefinitely postponing a possibly life-altering surgery after dedicating time to mentally and physically preparing for it can be devastating. Whether it is a small step on a long road or the last hoop to jump through, any changes to or suspended medical care plans can stir feelings of hopelessness as the future may no longer feel secure in a young, developing mind.
The increase in children’s and teens’ mental health issues is deeply concerning to us, especially considering the decreasing coverage of and access to healthcare. To overcome the barriers in accessing mental health services, we began offering monthly, virtual Family Meet-Ups with our partners, the Children’s Craniofacial Association, to provide the best psycho-social care to children living with physical differences and their families.
Our board member, licensed psychologist Dr. Azmaira Maker, has an article on Psychology Today detailing the warning signs of depression and anxiety in kids and teens that are crucial to know as early prevention is essential in preventing self-harming behaviors. For more resources on mental health conditions and signs in children and teens, Dr. Maker shares insightful blogs through her practice on the Aspiring Families’ website.