Pediatric psychiatrists say they were already short of resources before the pandemic brought a surge in caseloads. UNICEF said spending on promoting and protecting mental health “is extremely low” yet the needs are pressing. Citing pre-pandemic figures from 2019, UNICEF estimated nearly 46,000 children and adolescents ages 10 to 19 end their own lives every year.
The scale of pandemic-related distress among children and adolescents has jolted some governments into action. France, which is hosting a two-day global summit on mental health this week, has offered free therapy sessions for children and young people and pledged to extend that help from next year to everyone with a doctor's prescription. Elsewhere, counseling hotlines — some newly opened to help people struggling with their mental health during the pandemics — saw surging demand.
UNICEF said multiple worries affect the mental health of children and adolescents, including anxieties over possible illness, lockdowns, school closures and other upheavals in their lives. Lockdowns also fueled behavior problems, and were particularly hard-felt by kids with autism and attention and hyperactivity disorders, UNICEF said.
Remote learning was beyond the reach of hundreds of millions of young people. One in three schoolchildren couldn’t take part because they had no internet access or television, UNICEF said. Children in the poorest families were most affected. It estimated that two out of five children in eastern and southern Africa were still out of school as recently as July.
Even when they haven't been forced to drop out of school and work to help make ends meet, children also are being hit by the pandemic’s destructive repercussions for jobs and economies. UNICEF said the crisis has triggered “a sharp uptick” in numbers of children in poverty, with an additional 142 million children thought to have slipped into poverty last year.
Financial hardship and school closures could also put more girls at risk of being forced into early marriage as child brides, UNICEF warned.
Although children and adolescents have been less likely to die from COVID-19 than older and more vulnerable people, UNICEF cautioned that the pandemic has clouded their long-term future and “upended their lives, and created real concern for their mental health and well-being."
“It will hang over the aspirations and lifetime earnings of a generation whose education has been disrupted,” it said. “The risk is that the aftershocks of this pandemic will chip away at the happiness and well-being of children, adolescents and caregivers for years to come.”
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