'Steep rise' in depression among seven to 11-year-olds in first lockdown, study suggests

Sad young girl seeing through the window during home isolation watching out - Coronavirus or Covid-19 quarantine concept
Lockdown may have triggered depression in young children. (Posed by a model, Getty Images)

Depression increased among seven to 11-year-olds during the UK’s first coronavirus lockdown, research suggests.

Boris Johnson introduced the extreme measure on 23 March, forcing schools, restaurants and non-essential shops to shut for months.

Early in the outbreak, experts warned the pandemic could have a “profound” and “pervasive” impact on people’s mental health for some time.

To learn more about the emotional wellbeing of children, scientists from the University of Cambridge had the parents of 168 youngsters complete a survey on their little ones’ mental health.

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Compared to pre-lockdown, results suggest the children endured a “medium to large” increase in depressive symptoms, which the scientists called a “steep rise”.

This may have been due to loneliness from a lack of social interaction or reduced access to playful activities throwing off a young person’s “mood homeostasis”; engaging in fun tasks for an uplifting boost.

Mother and small daughter learning indoors at home, Corona virus and quarantine concept.
School closures may have resulted in loneliness due to in-person social interactions being reduced. (Posed by models, Getty Images)

“This study reports what many paediatricians have observed, while children rarely become ill with COVID-19 [the disease caused by the coronavirus], they have been significantly affected by the measures taken to reduce transmission of the virus,” said Dr Karen Street, from the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH).

“While we hope that for many children a return to normality will see a ‘rebound’ in their emotional wellbeing, we also know the socioeconomic impact of lockdown for many families will be ongoing for many years, and this will have secondary negative effects on the mental health of children.

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“Persisting mental health problems in childhood and adolescence are associated with poor outcomes for educational attainment, employment, and long-term physical and mental health, so it is vital there is sufficient investment in health, education and the voluntary sector to support children’s mental health as we recover from the pandemic.”

Coronavirus aside, statistics suggest more than one in 10 (12.5%) five to 19-year-olds in England had at least one mental disorder in 2017.

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Previous studies have thrown up mixed results when it comes to how lockdown, namely social distancing and school closures, affected children’s mental health.

To learn more, the Cambridge scientists analysed data on youngsters aged seven to 11 who lived in the East of England and took part in the Resilience in Education and Development study.

During the first lockdown, 168 of the children’s parents completed an online mental health assessment, rating their youngster’s emotional wellbeing.

These ratings were compared against data collected around 18 months earlier, when parents, teachers and the children themselves reported their mental health outcomes.

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Results – published in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood – suggest depression symptoms rose during lockdown, with the effect size being medium to large.

Put simply, there was around a 70% chance these symptoms worsened during lockdown in any child. No change was found to the children’s anxiety levels.

The results remained true after the scientists took into account other factors that may influence a child’s risk of depression, like socioeconomic status.

When looking closer at what may have driven the rise in depression, the scientists found many of the children endured lethargy, felt sad or empty, or struggled to enjoy activities.

The scientists stressed the study was relatively small and only included children from the East of England, with further research being required.

Nevertheless, they added: “The backdrop is children’s mental health appears to be worsening across successive cohorts, and even before lockdown, the resources for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services were stretched thin.

“The current findings suggest lockdown measures will likely exacerbate this, specifically with an increase in childhood depression symptoms, something previously relatively uncommon in children of this age.

“Our findings emphasise the need to incorporate the potential impact of lockdown on child mental health in planning the ongoing response to the global pandemic and the recovery from it.”

While the RCPCH “welcomes the government’s ongoing commitment to keep schools open”, Dr Street added: “It would also be good to see extra-curricular activities and opportunities for children and young people return as soon as possible.”

The research comes after the charity The Children’s Trust reported the pandemic was causing some youngsters to experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

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