The Pandemic’s Impact on Children’s Mental Health

According to a recent briefing paper released by the Kaiser Family Foundation (KFF), the COVID-19 pandemic has negatively impacted children’s emotional and cognitive health. Children across the nation have experienced major disruptions as a result of public health safety measures, including school closures, social isolation, financial hardships and gaps in health care access.

Many parents have reported poor mental health outcomes in their children throughout the pandemic. In May 2020, shortly after the pandemic began, 29 percent said their child’s mental or emotional health was already harmed. Additional research conducted in October 2020 revealed that 31 percent of parents considered their child’s mental or emotional health worse than before the pandemic.

For example, some children have exhibited increased irritability, clinginess and fear, and have had issues with sleeping and poor appetite. As children’s mental health issues become more pronounced, access to care issues may exacerbate their existing conditions. Overall, a KFF review of recent research finds:

• More than 25 percent of high school students reported worsening emotional and cognitive health and over 20 percent of parents with children ages 5-12 reported similar worsening conditions for their children.

• There has been a large decline in pediatric mental health care usage since the start of the pandemic. While access to mental health services via telehealth has increased, mental health services via schools likely decreased with closures. Among Medicaid and Children’s Health Insurance Program (CHIP) beneficiaries under the age of 18, the number of children receiving mental health services dropped by 50 percent from February to October 2020.

• In addition to loneliness and isolation resulting from public health safety measures, the poor mental health of parents could be a contributing factor in negative mental health outcomes for children. Also, children in low-income households are at greater risk for mental health issues and are less likely to have access to needed mental health care, compared to children in high-income households.

• Adolescents, young children, LGBTQ youth and children of color may be particularly vulnerable to negative mental health consequences of the pandemic. A survey of LGBTQ youth found that many LGBTQ adolescent respondents (ages 13-17) reported symptoms of anxiety (73 percent) and depression (67 percent) and serious thoughts of suicide (48 percent) during the pandemic. Although data is limited on children of color, research suggests that even before the pandemic they had higher rates of mental illness, but were less likely to access care.

The briefing paper also notes that several bills with funding related to children’s mental health have been introduced during the pandemic. The recently passed American Rescue Plan Act allocates funding for pediatric mental health care access and youth suicide prevention. The American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan propose additional funding for services to benefit children, including upgraded schools and nutrition programs.
What can families do to help children cope with pandemic-induced stress? First, it is important to communicate with children openly about the pandemic and any fears they may have. It is also important to acknowledge their feelings of isolation and encourage them to keep in touch with loved ones and friends. Parents and caregivers should also focus on creating a positive home environment that makes children feel safe and secure. Having the right support during times of crisis can help children build resiliency and better handle stressful situations in the future.

Looking ahead, poor mental health outcomes and access to care issues among children are likely to continue beyond the pandemic. This highlights the need for policymakers and parents alike to consider ways to help children feel safe and stay healthy in the long-term.


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