Social isolation, lockdowns, and not seeing friends for weeks on end have become the new normal in 2020. These circumstances have been hard for everyone, but a new study is warning that children and adolescents will feel the mental health repercussions of the 2020 coronavirus pandemic for years, and perhaps even decades, to come.
According to researchers from the University of Bath, current-day children and teens are going to be much more likely to develop depression and anxiety as adults due to social isolation today. They believe that mental health services and clinics all over the world should be prepared for an influx of new patients in the future.
Loneliness isn’t fun at any age, but socialization is a key aspect of adolescence and growing up. Children right now, already described as the “coronavirus generation” by many, are being deprived of the interactions, social learning experiences, and identity-defining moments that the rest of us took for granted growing up. All of that deprivation is almost certain to have a detrimental impact on the developing mind.
The research team reviewed over 60 previously released peer-reviewed studies on mental health issues like isolation and depression to make their conclusions. The bulk of that research focused on young people between the ages of 4-21.
All in all, they concluded that adolescents who are lonely today may be three times more likely to suffer from depression years down the line. They estimate that the long-term effects of loneliness and isolation can last for at least nine years.
Loneliness was of course around long before COVID-19 emerged, but the study’s authors say that the extended nature of these lockdown and social isolation periods is what makes this an entirely different, and more severe, mental health situation. It’s one thing to be lonely for a night or a weekend, we’ve all dealt with that, but tell a 14-year-old they can’t see their friends for three or four months? That’s another level of mental strain.
“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. We know this effect can sometimes be lagged, meaning it can take up to 10 years to really understand the scale of the mental health impact the COVID-19 crisis has created,” explains study leader Dr. Maria Loades, a clinical psychologist from the Department of Psychology at the University of Bath, in a university release.
This research certainly plays devil’s advocate, so to speak, when it comes to the debate surrounding whether or not to fully reopen schools, businesses, and the economy as a whole. The safety measures taken against COVID-19 are weighing all of us down mentally, but is a spike in mental health problems 10 years down the road enough to justify relaxing social distancing now?
Dr. Loades offers a moderate answer to that complex question; it’s important to get children (and everyone else for that matter) back into a normal routine of interacting with others, but re-acclimation needs to be done safely. Kids should return to school and start playing and talking while still maintaining a safe distance from one another.
“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. 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,” she explains.
“For our youngest and their return to school from this week, we need to prioritize the importance of play in helping them to reconnect with friends and adjust following this intense period of isolation,” Dr. Loades adds.
For anyone out there still skeptical about the importance of mental health, consider this; if the adults of tomorrow suffer from more intense depression in greater numbers it will undoubtedly have an impact on the national and global economy at that time as well. Mental health is everyone’s concern.
The full study can be found here, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.