In an item during the evening news recently, the Children's Advocate Diahann Gordon Harrison went to great lengths to indicate that children and adolescents are exhibiting signs of mental health issues, including suicide.
About this time last year, there were concerns about the regular incidences of violence among schoolchildren. We need to discuss the effects of COVID-19. But this must be prefaced because some troubling preconditions received little more than lip service over the years.
Jamaican children have been experiencing violence — directly or indirectly — in many settings, including at home, in school, online, or in neighbourhoods, and in many forms, such as bullying or harassment by peers, domestic violence, child maltreatment, and community violence. Exposure to violence can harm a child's emotional, psychological, and even physical development. For example, children exposed to violence are more likely to have difficulty in school, abuse drugs or alcohol, act aggressively, suffer from depression or other mental health problems, and engage in criminal behaviour.
The novel coronavirus, first reported in China, spread worldwide to create a global pandemic. As of August 18, 2020, the virus had taken root in 216 countries, with almost 22 million confirmed cases and 771,635 deaths globally. Several countries, including Jamaica, declared this pandemic a national emergency, forcing millions of people to go into lockdown. This decision unexpectedly imposed social isolation and caused enormous disruption of daily routines for the global community, especially children.
Among the measures intended to reduce the spread of the virus was school closure and classes were moved to the home or online to encourage and adhere to social distancing guidelines. As a result, the education of 67.6 per cent of students were impacted globally due to COVID-19 in 143 countries. In addition, the transition away from physical classes significantly disrupted the lives of students and their families, posing a potential risk to the mental well-being of children.
And why, one might ask, would isolation have such a severe effect on children? It is a fact that social isolation can stunt a child's development in numerous ways. It can make children anxious in social settings and unable to interact with their peers or adults. It can also prevent a child from learning. This lack of interaction can reduce academic momentum and hinder social and emotional growth. It has also been linked to negative impacts on mental health. These conditions pose an unusual situation for children's developing brains.
Countries with the resources and the foresight to conduct surveys made some exciting findings. Some 35 survey studies comprising 65,508 participants, ages four to 19 years, revealed anxiety (28 per cent), depression (23 per cent), loneliness (5 per cent), stress (5 per cent), fear (5 per cent), tension (3 per cent), anger (3 per cent), fatigue (3 per cent), confusion (3 per cent), and worry (3 per cent) were the most common mental health issues reported. Children and adolescents with psychiatric or developmental disorders were especially vulnerable to the mental health effects of COVID-19.
Although most children and adolescents infected with COVID-19 appear to have had mild to moderate symptoms and limited mortality rates, various mental health problems are surfacing. These include anxiety, stress, depression, panic, irritation, sleep problems, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicidal behaviour. The precautions were necessary, but at the same time, they came with increased risks of psychological impacts in this vulnerable age group.
Epidemiologist Mainuna Maijujumidal, attached to Boston Children's Hospital, gathered data from 14 states on suicide in 2020. She found that 10 to 19-year-olds accounted for a more significant share of suicides in 2020 than in prior years — increasing from 5.9 per cent 2015-2019 to 6.5 per cent in 2020, a statistically significant rise of 10 per cent. The clinical services department of the same hospital saw a similar trend when the hospital records were examined. Their findings appear in Hospital Pediatrics.
During the two-year study period — spanning the first pandemic year and the year just prior — nearly 3,800 children, aged four to 18, were admitted to inpatient units for mental health-related reasons. About 80 per cent were adolescents, aged 12 to 18. In the year before the pandemic, 50 per cent of admitted patients had suicidal ideation or had made suicidal attempts. That jumped to 60 per cent during the first pandemic year. The proportion making actual suicide attempts rose from 12 to 21 per cent of admissions.
Apart from suicidality, mental health admissions at Boston Children's increased year over year for several mental health conditions
It is essential and obligatory for the scientific community and health-care workers to assess and analyse the psychological impact caused by the novel coronavirus pandemic on children and adolescents, as several mental health disorders begin during childhood. Countries worldwide are in the dilemma of determining appropriate strategies for children to minimise the psychological impact of COVID-19.
Therefore, Jamaica needs to investigate and identify the risk factors to mental health and possible solutions to avoid the detrimental consequence of this crisis on the psychology of our future adult generations.
Research shows that disrupting violence is associated with positive outcomes for children and interventions that improve parent-child relationships can decrease harmful effects and enhance a child's development.