Understanding and limiting the spread of coronavirus has consumed our focus over the past few months. Physical distancing, child care and school closures, the persistence of masks, hand washing, have been essential steps to help protect each of us from the virus. However, this physical distancing has consequences that we need to talk about: isolation, loneliness, boredom, monotony, stress, anxiety, and fear. Mental health often takes a backseat when physical health is at risk. Health is both physical and mental, and when we prioritize the physical, it is at the expense of our mental wellbeing. Quarantine may yield so many negative mental health consequences, it is dangerous to overlook how it is impacting our mental wellbeing.
Historically, following mass quarantines one third of children have shown symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and nearly ninety percent of their parents had PTSD. I know some of my friends and family have felt the consequences of the isolation that has come as a result of stay at home orders and social distancing. Quarantine is a necessary precaution to protect people from illness, but it has other consequences that should not be downplayed to prioritize physical health.
Children deserve special consideration. Child development is nurtured by social interactions and experiences with classmates, teachers, friends, relatives, and childcare providers. Relationships with adults that develop during those years play a crucial role as buffers to help children cope with future adversity. To limit the risk of infection, kids are spending less time being physically active and learning and more time playing video games and watching TV. Along with the fear of infection, monotony, boredom, disappointment, family financial losses and other stressors that kids are facing, healthy social and emotional development may be a casualty. Not to mention, children who had mental health problems before quarantine are at an even greater risk of suffering as a result of the added stress.
For children who are experiencing these negative mental health consequences, these will not just go away when a vaccine is created. We know from science that experiences that occur during infancy and early childhood can have a lasting impact on the developing brain and biological systems. Stressors that occur in those early years have shown an increased risk for learning difficulties and physical health risks such as obesity and heart disease. Mental and physical health are treated as separate when in fact they are interdependent.
Although this may sound daunting, there are ways to mitigate these mental health consequences of the pandemic. Children may express impatience, annoyance, and irritability. There are ways that parents can address these negative consequences of the pandemic. Strategies for promoting children’s mental health at home include: accessing online classes or study materials, providing information about coronavirus and how to prevent it, and maintaining a healthy sleep cycle and exercise schedule. Children are facing an overwhelming amount of information about coronavirus on the news and social media. Open discussion about the spread and risks of the virus can be useful to alleviate anxiety and stress caused by the COVID-19 news kids may be exposed to. Activities both physical and educational can be helpful to limit boredom, irritability, and anxiety. Although being stuck at home can make these difficult and there are unique barriers families face when accessing the activities and resources above, there is abundant evidence of families innovating and organizations coming together to support families in new ways.
Although COVID-19 has reached all families in unique ways, it is impacting communities unequally. Low income, single parent and African American families are demonstrating increasing trends of emotional and behavioral issues in their children. Greater access to resources and support for child and family mental health should be made available to all who may need it and especially to these communities who have historically faced limited access to meet their needs. Although Boston and cities across the country are beginning to reopen, it is still unknown when or if we will return to “normal life.” It is our responsibility to provide comprehensive support for the children and families who should not have to navigate these mental health issues alone.