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Division of Clinical Psychology

Impacts of the pandemic on the mental health and wider psychological development of our children

04 February 2021 | by Division of Clinical Psychology

The following article has been produced by the DCP Faculty for Children, Young People, and Families, with assistance from the BPS Policy Team.

As clinical psychologists working with children, young people and their families, we are concerned about the impacts of the pandemic on the mental health and wider psychological development of our children.

While we acknowledge that there will have been some positives to the experiences for many children and families, our concern is about the negative impacts which are set against the background of a pre-pandemic increase in children’s mental health difficulties.

The scale of the negative impact(1) on children and young people’s mental health is already becoming clear(2), giving us an early wakeup call. We also need to remember that most mental health problems experienced by adults have their origins in childhood.(3)

All of our children, young people and their families have experienced the direct effects of the pandemic, through loss of schooling and social opportunities.

There have also been the indirect effects, on their parents and the structures around them.

Many of our most vulnerable young people will have suffered the most, including those with pre-existing mental health vulnerabilities, physical health difficulties, developmental differences, and learning difficulties.(2)

Others will have experienced significant impacts and trauma through bereavement and serious illness among their loved ones, as well as fears for their themselves and their futures.

All have learned that the world is an unpredictable and, at times, frightening place.

Those caring for and supporting them will have had their own struggles. Many feel helpless in the face of the impact on their children.

This is all set against a wider context of societal and global anxiety, not just as a result of Covid-19 but also issues such as climate change, and we must recognise the disproportionate impact that the pandemic has had on those from minority ethnic groups.

While all our children have had challenging experiences over the last year and which may colour their views on life as they grow up, for the majority this is alongside many positive protective influences (promotive factors), such as a secure and loving family, good relationships with their teachers, and a stable social life.

Safety, security, and stability are all basic building blocks of a strong foundation to manage what life presents to them.(4)

For a substantial minority however, we need to consider the risk factors for the development of psychological difficulties alongside the protective factors that can help ameliorate those risks.

The determinants of mental health are broad.

Growing up in poverty, deprivation, and trauma are major risk factors for the development of mental health problems and, sadly, we know that children and families tend not to experience only one form of disadvantage.

The pandemic has exacerbated both the numbers of children in these circumstances and widened the gap between them and their better off peers.

There is significant research literature on protective factors - those elements in a child’s world that can protect them in times of adversity. It is crucial that we create the conditions for children to develop, grow and thrive, even in difficult circumstances.(5)

Policy and strategy around mental health must seek to support the development of promotive and protective factors around children and young people.

This requires long-term commitment to supporting the wide range of domains that can affect a child’s life.

This situation calls both for immediate and coordinated action, and for a widespread re-evaluation of the needs of our younger generations and the way our society structures what is available to them and their families.

We need a national strategy to address both the pre-pandemic failings and also build structures that help our children develop as well as possible following their pandemic experiences.


References

  1. Vizard, T., Sadler, K., Ford, T., et.al. (2020) Mental Health of Children and Young People in England 2020, Wave 1 follow-up to the 2017 survey. NHS Digital.
  2. Co-Space study.
  3. Davies SC. Annual Report of the Chief Medical Officer 2013, Public Mental Health Priorities: Investing in the Evidence [Internet]. 2014.
  4. Zimmerman et al (2013) “ Adolescent resilience:promotive factors that inform prevention” Child Development Perspectives 7 215-220
  5. Rutter et al (2013) “Developmental psychpathology: a paradigm shift or just relabeling?” Development and Psychopathology 25 4pt2 1201-1213

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