A WE-Spark Health Institute study of the mental health of local children during the COVID-19 pandemic found elevated levels of psychological distress and increased symptoms across five of seven psychiatric disorders.
The study involving 317 families and over 630 individuals found increased incidences of depression, irritability, post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder.
“We sought to look at how widespread each disorder was and we found it varied depending on the month we looked at,” said the study’s lead researcher Lance Rappaport, who is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Windsor.
“Just how pronounced it was was connected to when a child felt unsafe.”
The study, which was released Monday, was conducted between June 2020 and December 2021 and included children, parents or caregivers.
WE-SPARK Health Institute is a partnership between Hôtel-Dieu Grace Healthcare, St. Clair College, the University of Windsor and Windsor Regional Hospital. The study can be found at: https://psyarxiv.com/e38ta/.
The stress levels and mental health issues were most noticeable during the months when COVID infections, deaths and hospitalizations were highest.
In addition to the stress induced by fear of the virus, children were also adversely affected by lockdowns and the cancellation of significant events.
“The higher the risk in the month of getting sick or seeing friends, family and teachers being absent were especially strong indicators (of when there’d be an increase in mental health issues),” Rappaport said.
He added irritability was the most common disorder observed in children. There were also general levels of anxiety across the board, but not all children reached levels where it was impairing their ability to function.
Interestingly, Rappaport said there was no direct connection to online learning versus in-classroom learning when it came to negative impacts on children’s mental health.
“Online learning was not associated with irritability at all,” Rappaport said. “Online learning was unrelated to children’s well-being. What differentiated the stress levels was when children felt unsafe.”
The study also found a negative impact on children when significant events were cancelled.
“As long as children felt they wouldn’t get sick, they really didn’t like it when significant events were cancelled,” Rappaport said.
The study’s results are now being used to help create a strategy on how best to help children deal with this lengthy period of mental health challenges.
Rappaport said a graduate student is going through the findings looking at different ways of offering more social supports.
“The biggest lesson learned is there are immediate and long-term benefits when we do anything to show children we prioritize their safety,” Rappaport said.
“Feeling supported by loved ones, family and friends, there’s even a clearer association to better mental health. It’s probably the best way to help children through the pandemic and to limit the mental health impacts.”
Rappaport defers to the medical experts on just what policies are best to create a safe and secure environment for children, but he is sure a failure to do so will come with a hefty price tag.
“We know the long-term cost (of poor mental health) is substantial,” Rappaport said. “When it happens in school-aged children, it’s amplified over their lifetime.
“It affects their education, their academic potential, what jobs they have, their personal growth and potential achievement. We want to intervene early and effectively because of those long-term ramifications.”