Mieke Schuurman, Senior Policy Advisor, Eurochild
This article is part of a series in which OECD experts and thought leaders — from around the world and all parts of society — address the COVID-19 crisis, discussing and developing solutions now and for the future. Aiming to foster the fruitful exchange of expertise and perspectives across fields to help us rise to this critical challenge, opinions expressed do not necessarily represent the views of the OECD.
COVID-19 is a public health emergency, not only for older adults who have suffered from the increased risk of infections but also for children’s mental health and well-being. As European governments begin developing their recovery plans, they will need to contend with the impact of the COVID-19 on children. As a child participation expert, I know how essential it is for children to be part of this process.
Owing to the lockdowns across Europe, many children lost their sense of normalcy and could not enjoy what constitutes a healthy development. Social interactions were curbed—they could not meet friends or hug a grandparent, and they, too, had to deal with terrible loss. Those without digital access could not continue school online; as a result, those in the most vulnerable situations missed out on eating that one healthy meal per day or having a safe space or trusted adult to share their anxieties with. Many were frightened and still are.
A recent consultation on the EU Strategy on the Rights of the Child—organised in co-operation with the European Commission and other civil society organisations, and involving over 10,000 children aged 11-17—shows the gravity of children’s declining mental health.
It found that almost one in ten respondents from the EU identifies as living with mental health problems or symptoms such as depression or anxiety. Girls and older children were seen to be far more at risk. One in five children aged 11-17 reported feeling sad or unhappy most of the time. Children from minority groups are even worse off: nearly half of LGBTQ+ children and a third of children with disabilities and migrant children say they feel sad or unhappy most of the time. Children who were taking care of other family members were put under more strain owing to the pandemic. In an EU-funded consultation, 36% of young carers aged 15-17 indicated that their mental health had deteriorated, while 16% have thought about hurting themselves.
The causes presented for these alarming rates of mental health problems are complex. More than half of the respondents indicate being anxious about the future, and more than a third find school to be difficult. Feelings of loneliness and conflicts with family and friends also play a big role in children’s mental well-being.
At the end of the last year, Eurochild published a report on Growing up in lockdown: Europe’s children in the age of Covid-19, which found that the combination of financial stress, uncertainty over the future, and families being confined to the home during the lockdown led to increased anxiety and mental health problems; some children faced difficulty sleeping, and even those with no history of behavioural problems showed signs of stress, sometimes including aggression. It is expected that an increased number of children growing up in families at risk will enter into alternative care. Moreover, the impact on children’s mental well-being in out-of-home care was felt just as keenly as they were being isolated from the outside world, including losing contacts with their biological parents and not being consulted about the change in rules within the institutions.
While the mental health of children and young people was a concern before the COVID-19 pandemic, it is now even more urgent.
In another study conducted by Eurochild and RAND for the European Commission, we asked over 200 children from diverse backgrounds in 10 European countries about their participation in public decision-making and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. The children saw an increase in poverty resulting in serious financial problems, lower self-esteem and a drop in happiness. Additionally, the children who were consulted felt more silenced than ever as they were not included in decisions related to COVID-19.
What can policy makers do to address children’s mental health problems?
Governments have to act and invest in mental health care for children as has recently been done by the French government, which promised to provide free psychological counseling for children aged 3-17 struck by a wave of mental health difficulties caused by the pandemic. Eurochild is also pleased with the inclusion of mental health care in the EU’s Child Guarantee proposal.
In addition, schools are a place as much for social interaction and support as they are for formal education and must be kept open as much as possible. Schools can also be safe places to gauge children’s well-being, anxiety and stress. But we have to make sure that adults, such as teachers, youth workers and other professionals are also supported to deal with mental health problems.
Eurochild has launched a campaign urging leaders to act on the challenges, concerns and fears of children. Can they believe in us to end child poverty? Can they believe in us to invest in mental health? 2020 was a year of loss for children. This “lost” year should not lead to a “lost generation”. We have to invest in children—their education, their health, their well-being and their social welfare—to tackle the poverty, social exclusion, inequalities that they and their families are experiencing. They are asking all of us: “Can we believe in you”?