Children around the world have stayed indoors for an average of six months since the start of the pandemic, with growing concerns about rising levels of depression, anxiety, loneliness and even self-harm, Save the Children has warned ahead of World Mental Health Day.
New analysis by Save the Children, using data from the Oxford COVID-19 Government ResponseTracker, reveals that children globally have lived under required and recommended nationwide lockdowns for an average of six months, or 184 days since the COVID-19 pandemic started in early 2020.
Children in Venezuela have faced one of the longest periods at home, with intermittent lockdowns keeping children inside for up to 16 months. In Lebanon, children were confined to their homes for 418 days. Across Zimbabwe, children were in lockdown for nearly nine months this year alone.
Save the Children is warning that these extended lockdowns are taking a devastating toll on children’s mental health globally and is urging all governments to include mental health and psychosocial support for children and adolescents in national health services.
Children who experience long-term lockdowns are at increased risk of emotional distress, loneliness, and abuse, as well as lack of outdoor play and access to mental health support. In some cases, prolonged stress, uncertainty, and social isolation can also lead to anxiety, aggression, withdrawn behaviour, or even depression and self-harm.
Marie Dahl, Head of Save the Children’s Mental Health & Psychosocial Support Unit, said:
“A global mental health crisis is unfolding, and for some children its harmful effects may be catastrophic. Children living in poverty or already in disadvantaged or otherwise vulnerable situations are at greater risk of the damaging consequences of long-lasting lockdowns.
“Being deprived of social stimulation can severely impact children’s mental health and development. While lockdown orders are important to curb the spread of COVID-19, social isolation can cause feelings of hopelessness, anxiety and depression among children. Failure to respond to this mental health crisis could leave children with long-term wellbeing, development and overall poor health implications even after restrictions are lifted.”
A survey of over 13,000 children in 46 countries carried out by Save the Children in September last year found that 83% of children reported an increase in negative feelings due to the pandemic. Reports of negative feelings were far higher for the vast majority of children (96%) when schools had been closed for 17 to 19 weeks.
Since then, the situation for many children has worsened as countries have battled third or fourth waves of the virus, lockdowns have continued, and schools in some countries have been closed for over 18 months.
In India, which has recorded more than 448,000 COVID-19 deaths, children across the country have spent at least 100 days at home.45 To support children’s mental health in India, Save the Children set up a free counselling helpline for children and young people struggling in the pandemic. The helpline has received more than 2,900 calls this year. Stress, anxiety and boredom, as well as uncertainty towards the future, are among the top concerns raised on the helpline.
“I usually get calls from children related to how [the] pandemic has taken a toll on them and their studies. It is clearly stressful for the children to stay at home doing nothing. It has also led to more and more anger issues in children,” said Isha, a helpline counsellor with Save the Children.
Children in nearly every country have endured some form of lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic. In high-income countries like Canada, some children have stayed indoors for a total of 13 months or 402 days.6 Although high-income countries have better access to mental health support, children in these countries can also experience disruptions in their online education, sleeping cycles, play routines and social interactions, as well as a heightened risk of harm online. All of these factors can put children’s mental health at risk.
In Europe, lockdowns have kept children like 14-year-old Naya at home for an average of nine months. Naya, who moved to the Netherlands from Syria in 2013, knows first-hand the positive impact mental health and wellbeing support can have. She now advocates for children’s mental health together with Save the Children. Last June, she called on the government to better support teachers in providing psychosocial support to children with a refugee background.
“The psychosocial support [that I’ve received] helped increase [my] confidence in my own abilities and to realize I don’t need to be ashamed of what I’ve gone through. My fears and nightmares have disappeared. Having friends helped a lot in processing my experiences and making me feel at home,” said Naya.
In Nepal, where children have stayed indoors for up to 12 months since the pandemic began, Save the Children has been providing therapeutic counselling for children.
Rajesh, 18, received counselling from Save the Children in Nepal after he struggled with feelings of anger and lack of sleep during lockdown. His school was unable to run online lessons, and when he tried to go outside for a walk he was stopped by police.
“I was afraid I would not survive, and I would never be able to see new things in my life. I feared my dreams would be lost forever,” Rajesh said.
Save the Children wants all governments to prioritize and invest in children’s mental health, wellbeing and learning during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. The organisation is also calling for children’s mental health and wellbeing to be acknowledged as a right, urging governments to tackle stigma and human rights violations of children with mental health conditions and psychosocial disabilities.
With the right care and support, many children who are experiencing elevated distress due to the pandemic will be able to recover and reach their full potential.
However, Ms Dahl from Save the Children said mental health and psychosocial support as part of health, education and protection services must be urgently funded to better respond to future lockdowns, as well as other emerging challenges, especially in low- and middle-income countries. Without it, it could lead to serious mental health and development consequences for the next generation.