The Children’s Institute at UCT in collaboration with the Children’s Hospital Trust and the Michael and Susan Dell Foundation developed a series of advocacy briefs focusing, among others, on the impact of COVID-19 and the mental health of children. The briefs were released in August.

The advocacy brief on Mental Health and Wellness observed that there have been few studies on the mental health of children and adolescents during the pandemic.

“Much of the data we have comes from studies on the general population and these data show a rise in anxiety with impacts rated as moderate to severe. In a long-term follow-up study of children and young people in England in 2020, more than 25% reported sleep disruptions, while almost 20% of children with a probable mental health problem stated that they were fearful of leaving the house because of COVID-19. Based on experience of other humanitarian crises and epidemics such as HIV, it is likely that there will be long-term and enduring mental health impacts on children, such as sleep problems, separation anxiety and aggressiveness,” stated the advocacy brief.

De Vries says he has not seen numbers from South Africa suggesting an increase in mental health disorders during COVID-19, but there is probably an increase. “In European countries and elsewhere this seems to be the case. We have no reason to believe South Africa will be any [different],” he says.

“Social isolation, ongoing lockdown regulations resulting in limited movement, closure of schools, halting of extra-curricular activities, breaking down established routine, and also limited access to support systems have exposed the mental health vulnerabilities of young children and adolescents,” Patel says, adding that parents and adults now working from home have created a home environment often filled with stress and anxiety as parents juggle work and family commitments.

“Parental support is extremely important to children and adolescents. Parents need to spend more time with children and adolescents explaining the pandemic and what is happening around us as we lose loved ones, teachers and friends. We also need to be mindful of the needs of children to remain in contact with friends via social media and allow them space and freedom to interact with peers,” she says noting that not all families have access to data, so alternate means of relaxation need to be found like playing board games and getting children involved in preparing meals and spending fun time together.

But, reminds de Vries, “even in pre-COVID times the mental health of children and adolescents was a highly neglected area”.
“COVID has just exacerbated all of it and in clinical settings, we are now dealing with very high levels of distressed young people and with very high rates of mental health disorders,” he says. –

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