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Lockdowns may be permanently damaging mental health of children

As lockdowns ease, many parents are still wondering if they will be able to send their children to church camp or if they’ll continue to spend time in lockdown. With children already missing out on their last few months of the school year, many — if not most — are spending far less time socializing and far more time alone. Researchers now warn that the long stretch of social isolation may have a negative, longterm impact on children’s mental health.

That and other recent studies are sounding alarm bells as school districts consider a late start to the  upcoming school year. Critics say the concern about children and transmission of Covid-19 to adults is unfounded as only a handful of confirmed cases of transmission around the world have been documented.

A recent review conducted by psychologists from the University of Bath shows that there is reason to worry about negative long-term effects the coronavirus lockdown can have on children. The authors used data form 60 peer-reviewed journal articles on the topics of social isolation and mental health in children aged 4-21. They conclude that kids are likely to experience depression and anxiety, even long after the lockdown restrictions are lifted.

“From our analysis, it is clear there are strong associations between loneliness and depression in young people, both in the immediate and the longer-term,” says lead author Dr. Maria Loades, a clinical psychologist with the university, in a statement.

The findings show that loneliness, especially the span of time children spend feeling lonely, makes them three times more likely to feel depressed in the future. Overall, the impact on mental health can have a lasting effect for at least nine years.

“There is evidence that it’s the duration of loneliness as opposed to the intensity which seems to have the biggest impact on depression rates in young people,” says Loades. “This means that returning to some degree of normality as soon as possible is of course important. However, how this process is managed matters when it comes to shaping young people’s feelings and experiences about this period.”

READ: The church has the answer for growing loneliness problem

The authors of the review penned a letter to the United Kingdom’s Education Secretary, Gavin Williamson, suggesting some ways the government can ease the impact of extended isolation on children as schools begin to open up.

  • All children must be given time to play with each other as lockdown restrictions are lifted, but children should still practice social distancing while playing together
  • Schools should prioritize the emotional well-being of their students as they begin to reopen rather than focus on academics
  • Schools and parents should be made aware of the social and emotional benefits of play as well as the potential risks children face from extended isolation

Their letter with a warning: “Poor emotional health in children leads to long term mental health problems, poorer educational attainment and has a considerable economic burden.”

The review is published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.