Among the most talked-about consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic is the toll taken on mental health, both in children and adults. Mental health experts were concerned about repercussions from the very beginning, but inevitably, given the stakes of contending with the virus and the unfamiliar territory we’ve all found ourselves in, it has been difficult to manage proactively.
Now a year into the pandemic, hopefully with the worst of its acute consequences behind us, Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago was eager to understand parents’ experiences monitoring and managing their children’s mental health. Recently, they polled 1,000 parents across the US, focusing our inquiry on how parents contextualize the impact of the pandemic on mental health, what choices they regret making, and what they’ve done to constructively address challenges. For parents who live with multiple children, they asked them to focus their responses on the child they are most concerned about with respect to mental health.
Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago began by asking parents to describe their general feelings about the pandemic’s effects on mental health. Not surprisingly, a majority of parents are distressed by the situation. Seventy-one percent believe the pandemic has taken a toll on their child’s mental health, 69 percent say the pandemic is the worst thing to happen to their child, and 67 percent wish they’d been more vigilant about their child’s mental health from the beginning.
Parents cited social isolation as the most unhealthy aspect of the pandemic, followed by remote learning and too much screen time. Notably, all three of these factors were cited at least twice as frequently as fear of the virus.
“From the perspective of stressors, this is good news,” says Colleen Cicchetti, Ph.D., Executive Director, Center for Childhood Resilience and Clinical Psychologist, The Pritzker Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health. “Children being impacted by the more serious effects of the virus, including loss of loved ones and the anxiety of instability of parental income, food insecurity and homelessness, are more toxic stressors. Children experiencing toxic levels of stress or trauma are more likely to have a longer-term impact from their COVID experience and require more specialized care and interventions. The factors that most parents from this sample identified represent factors that, while significant, are also beginning to shift as the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.”
Thinking about some pillars of mental health—socializing, exercising, eating well, sleeping well, varying activities, processing experiences—it’s clear a range of things were compromised all at once. And many parents believe they’re facing a problem that will have long-term consequences. Sixty-four percent believe the pandemic will have a lasting effect on their child’s development, with most (71 percent) citing emotional development as their top concern.