Study of COVID-19 Pandemic Impact on Youth Mental Health Suggests Demand for Services Will Increase

Although the evidence suggested some deterioration for a few aspects of mental health, the overall findings were mixed with no clear pattern.

The COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on youth mental health could result in an increased demand for services, according to a recent study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

The study is the first to examine research on children and youth’s mental health both before and after the pandemic. According to the authors, these findings provide new insight into mental health changes in young people across the globe during the pandemic.

In the study, investigators examined 51 studies on how the pandemic affected young people’s mental health across a range of domains. Importantly, these studies included information on baseline mental health that was collected before the pandemic rather than relying on retrospective perceptions of change. The demand for fast-paced research during the pandemic meant that the standard of the studies varied, with just 4 classified as high quality.

Although the evidence suggested some deterioration for a few aspects of mental health, the overall findings were mixed with no clear pattern. There were mixed findings from studies that measured the same type of mental health difficulty in different ways, suggesting that the effects of the pandemic were not universal and depend on the circumstances and contexts of children, youth, and their families. The overall effect, however, is large enough to result in an increased demand for services, according to the study.

“The pandemic affected the lives of children and young people worldwide, and we’ve heard a lot of talk around the impact on mental health,” said study author Tamsin Newlove-Delgado, PhD, in a press release. “Our review of the research in the field provides further evidence that already-stretched services are likely to see an increase in demand, but that perhaps things are not as bad for everyone as some headlines make them appear.”

The review found some evidence of deterioration across a range of broader measures of mental health, such as an increase in overall problems with behavior, emotions, or anxiety, as well as finding multiple studies that reported no change and some reporting improvement in mental health.

Importantly, however, research in this area is notoriously hard to interpret because developmentally, mental health problems become more common in adolescence than childhood. This makes it difficult to assess to what extent the negative impacts found are a result of children in the studies getting older or are actually related to the pandemic.

“Studying the whole population of children and young people means that our research may not pick up on differences between groups that may have fared better or worse during the pandemic,” said co-author Tamsin Ford, CBE, FRCPsych, FMedSci, in the press release. “For example, other research has found that some children and young people reported sleeping and eating better during lockdowns or found it easier to access remote schooling as they could work at their own pace. Others struggled with lack of structure or lack of access to remote schooling or peers.”

REFERENCE

First pandemic young people’s mental health review says service demand will rise. News release. University of Exeter. News release; Novermber 24, 2022. Accessed November 30, 2022. https://www.exeter.ac.uk/news/research/title_944596_en.html

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