Pandemic Dramatically Increases Children’s Mental Health Difficulties

April 01, 2021

Parents Urged to Watch for Signs of Distress and Seek Help

A recent survey by Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago shows the toll the pandemic is taking and estimates that 70,000 toddlers and children in the city—at a minimum—are showing symptoms that may be connected to detrimental mental and behavioral health.

The COVID-19 pandemic has marked a dramatic change in the lives of young people as schools converted to remote learning and children have had fewer opportunities to socialize with friends and loved ones. Many families are also experiencing financial difficulties due to unemployment, which adds to stress and anxiety about the future. The pandemic’s impact on youth mental health is evident at Lurie Children’s and other hospitals as the number of children and adolescents needing hospital care for mental and behavioral health issues has increased over the last 12 months, as has the number of families seeking outpatient treatment for their children.

The survey, conducted as part of the Voices of Child Health in Chicago program at Lurie Children’s, indicates the widespread social and emotional impact of the pandemic on children throughout Chicago’s communities.

“Supporting the mental and behavioral wellbeing of children and adolescents is critically important. As a pediatrician, I am concerned that children may continue to experience these health effects as the pandemic continues, and potentially even after the pandemic comes under better control,,” says Matthew Davis, MD, MAPP, Chair of the Department of Medicine at Lurie Children’s, Executive Vice-President and Chief Community Health Transformation Officer at the Patrick M. Magoon Institute for Healthy Communities at Lurie Children’s, and Chair of Pediatrics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

Parents who are concerned about their children’s behavioral health and well-being can find assistance through the following sources:

  • Primary care providers who can discuss parents’ concerns and provide guidance about next steps that might include screening or referrals to specialists who can help.
  • School administrators or school social workers who can inform about resources available through their child’s school.
  • Lurie Children’s Center for Childhood Resilience, which fosters mental resiliency in youth, and lists resources and guidance for parents and schools.
  • Parents can also encourage their child to practice self-care in 15- or 30-minute increments throughout the day, such as taking walks, playing with pets, and listening and dancing to music.

 

Forty-eight percent of parents in the survey said they talked with their child’s pediatrician about mental or behavioral health concerns in the last year. Parents are reacting to difficulties they observe: 44 percent of parents said their young child exhibited more physical or behavioral symptoms during the pandemic than before, including tantrums, nightmares, clinginess and other symptoms that might point to mental health challenges.

The pandemic may be cause for concern about other lasting effects on children as well, such as childhood obesity. For these same children experiencing more symptoms of distress, parents also said their child was more likely to be eating more than before the pandemic, sleeping less, getting less physical activity, and spending more screen time for educational and non-educational purposes.

Dr. Davis emphasized that the need for accessible, affordable mental health care for pediatric patients has intensified tremendously because of the pandemic. In fact, nearly 1 in 5 (18 percent) parents said they were unable to access  mental or behavioral health care for their child at some point, most often because they could not find a specialty provider, they could not afford it, or they could not get an appointment in a timely fashion.

Future waves of the survey will also explore mental and behavioral health symptoms among older youth, such as indications of depression and anxiety.

Survey findings are based on data from a recently launched survey project called the Voices of Child Health in Chicago Parent Panel Survey. The survey is conducted exclusively by NORC at the University of Chicago for Lurie Children’s and is administered to Chicago parents three times each year via internet and telephone surveys. The data in this report are from Wave 2 of the survey, collected between November 2020 through February 2021, from 1,505 Chicago parents from all 77 community areas in Chicago and weighted to be representative of households with children across the city.

Population-focused child health research at Lurie Children’s is conducted through the Mary Ann & J. Milburn Smith Child Health Outcomes, Research, and Evaluation Center at the Stanley Manne Children’s Research Institute. The Manne Research Institute is focused on improving child health, transforming pediatric medicine and ensuring healthier futures through the relentless pursuit of new knowledge. Lurie Children’s is ranked as one of the nation’s top children’s hospitals in U.S. News & World Report and is the pediatric training affiliate for Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. Last year, the hospital served more than 221,000 children from 47 states and 30 countries