Supporting Pandemic Stress Symptoms
Post-pandemic stress in children comes in many forms, as it does with adults. Since March 2020 when global governments locked down much of the population, children became exposed to the fractures within their family unit already compounded by fear of Covid, quarantine, social distancing, loss of job and income, increased debt and rising cases of domestic violence as people struggled to deal with reduced support from family, friends and health providers. Many adults and teenagers alike sought refuge in alcohol and drugs. The lack of freedom and increased stress has led to a feeling of hopelessness, self-harming behaviours and in some tragic cases has ended in suicide.
Since March 2020, life for many children has been severely restricted. The usual social occasions on which normal human life depends to create cohesion and meaning had largely disappeared. The importance of peer contact is vital for well-being and normal social development, and these contacts have been prohibited for long periods of time.
Mental Health Experts such as CAP (Child and Adolescent psychiatry) are now witnessing an unprecedented rise in childhood referrals as families desperately attempt to reverse the damage caused by the social isolation and economic pressure placed upon them during lockdowns. Children from previously disadvantaged backgrounds have had their problems intensified and feel more marginalised than ever before. These services not only save families, but they can also save lives.
As most children turned to digital substitutes during lockdown for education and socialisation, so they are being asked to turn to digital solutions such as Telepsychiatry or online counselling to help deal with their stress symptoms.
These measures are undoubtedly helpful for some families, but as the demand for these services grows, so do waiting times lengthen for children who might be in desperate need for an expert ear to guide them out of the dark tunnel in which they have found themselves through no fault of their own.
The benefit of online services is that experts can be sought from anywhere in the world and beamed straight into the home. But as this is a worldwide pandemic, the problems that exist here in the UK also exist globally which means services are being stretched and usually only available to those who can afford to pay for a private consultation.
Another group of children who have suffered greatly because of imposed isolation are those with pre-existing mental or physical disabilities whose support systems abruptly stopped last year. The caregivers and children alike suffered a sudden sense of abandonment and those at the lower end of the socio-economic system felt these stressors acutely.
In contrast, some families have flourished and viewed the lockdowns as opportunities to spend more time with their children without the stress of organising business trips away. Some children who were previously bullied at school have found relief at being educated at home away from their tormentors. Within some of these families, a reluctance to return to the workplace or school is now becoming a matter of concern as they have grown accustomed to the insularity of their Lockdown lives.
Personal growth can only really be effective when children are exposed to all aspects of life, the experiences of which build resilience in adult years. Good mental health and normal emotional development requires regular social interaction within a physical environment.
The negative effects, both physical and mental, are predicted to be long-lasting. In some cases, quality of life will be dramatically lowered and could result in up to 20 years reduced life expectancy.
Perhaps we need to rethink how we deliver services to struggling families as the demand for expert care continues to grow. A voluntary or hired supportive ear might be one solution to those children who are feeling isolated or anxious and need to talk through their fears. In days gone by extended families usually provided this naturally, a safe haven for a family member who needed to offload away from their immediate family. We have, in the main, lost this benefit as families have reduced in size and fragmented owing to divorce or geographical distance. So perhaps the best we can do is substitute this with the ear of a volunteer support worker via digital media who can discuss self-care strategies and to reassure the child that they are not alone and that the way they are feeling is not shameful or bad in any way.
A list of all emergency mental health services that family members can contact in a crisis could also be made available to families, especially those with school aged children.
Other support systems are solely AI based and available online and we will examine the effectiveness of these particular therapies in the next blog in this series.