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What are the risks children face in the Pandemic?

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The COVID-19 pandemic has affected every corner of daily life and has changed our way of living beyond recognition. The impact of the virus has meant that it will continue to cause disruption to society for considerable time.

UNICEF states that more than 1.5 billion children and young people have been affected by school closures worldwide. This has meant that digital screen time has risen, as more families rely on technology to allow their children to be home schooled, entertained and connected with the outside world.

The NSPCC states that the demand for online child sexual material has risen as predators look to exploit the COVID-19 pandemic. In some homes, standards of supervision have fallen, as parents feel overburdened with responsibility. This leaves some children seeking out friendships on the internet due to feeling lonely or forgotten.

UNICEF,  together with its partners, Global Partnership to End Violence against Children, International Telecommunications Union (ITU) United Nations Educational and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), WePROTECT Global Alliance, World Health Organisation (WHO), and World Childhood Foundation USA, is releasing a new technical note aimed at urging governments, ICT industries, educators and parents to be alert, take urgent measures to mitigate potential risks, and ensure children’s online experiences are safe and positive during COVID-19.

Another focus in recent months is the deterioration of children’s emotional and mental health. This is down to parents and caregivers experiencing a change to their routine, financial insecurity. Parents are juggling multiple responsibilities such as; childcare, full-time work, caring for vulnerable members of their families and home schooling. Adequate support from relatives and professionals has not been available due to the restrictions, which has led to mental and emotional health issues for both parents and their children. Some have resorted to using negative coping strategies.

During the pandemic, children are unable to meet their friends and trusted adults outside their immediate family.  Children’s mental and emotional wellbeing combined with the confinement in their homes has created new vulnerabilities. Children are thus accessing social media more frequently and this has increased the risk of online grooming.

Lockdown has highlighted that many families are having fewer interactions with essential services designed to support them. The outcome is that these resources are unable to detect, respond or prevent abuse/neglect as these safeguards are weakened during the pandemic.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that it is normal for people feel worried, stressed and fearful as these are very uncertain times. There is also the fear of contracting the virus and changes to our daily lives as our movement are restricted to support the efforts to slow and contain the spread of the virus. We are having to work from home, may be temporarily unemployed, lack of physical contact with friends and colleagues. Therefore, it is important that we care for our physical and mental health.

The pandemic has highlighted a need for substantial investment to avoid a mental health crisis according the WHO. Depression and anxiety are increasing. A study in Ethiopia, April 2020 established a 3-fold increase in symptoms of depression compared to before the pandemic. Certain groups are more at risk of COVID related stress. These frontline workers have to make life or death decisions and risk infection. Health care workers report high rates of depression – up by 50%.

In terms of the mental health in children, parents in Spain and Italy reported that their children had issues with concentration; they were often irritable, restless and suffered from nervousness. 32% of young people in the UK have reported that the pandemic had made their mental health worse.  Mental health services have been interrupted due to closing face to face appointments and drug/alcohol support groups have been unable to meet up for several months. It is critical that patients living with a mental health condition should be able to access services. Canada has also reported that 20% of 15-49 year olds have increased their alcohol consumption during the pandemic. Unfortunately, many people are using alcohol as a way to self-medicate, as mental health services are limited or no longer available to those in need.

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (WHO - Director-General) stated that mental health should be treated as a core element to the response from the COVID-19 pandemic. This is the responsibly of government and civil society. The failure to take people’s emotional well-being seriously will have a long-term impact to the social and economic costs to society.

It is critical that people living with mental health as still able to access services. Some countries have already implemented changes in how they can deliver services to support those most in need. In Madrid, patients with severe mental health conditions were moved to private clinics so their treatment could continue when the mental health beds were converted to care for patients with COVID-19. In addition, outpatient services continued over the phone and home visits were organised for the most serious cases. New Zealand, Nepal, Kenya, Egypt and Malaysia have all reported increasing capacity of emergency telephone lines in order the people can reach out for support if they are having mental health difficulties.

For further reading:

Online Support:

Guidance for parents and carers on supporting children and young people’s mental health and wellbeing during coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic

Every Mind Matters:

This resource provides helpful tips regarding impact of coronavirus of mental health:

  • How to fall asleep faster and sleep better
  • Looking after children and young people
  • 7 simple ideas to tackle working from home
  • Mental wellbeing while staying at home
  • What you can do if you feel lonely

MindEd for Families:

This site has a helpful search bar and list of suggestions to support families