April is famously the cruellest month because that is when flowers start growing in The Waste Land, T.S. Eliot’s 1922 poem of cultural decay.
Likewise, as school wraps up for Canadian children, this is shaping up to be a cruel, cruel summer, as in the 1984 Bananarama song about heatwave heartache, because sunny weather is a sad time to be alone.
As dated as those references are, kids today still get it. There is a painful contrast in June quarantine, when summer would otherwise burst into life.
Children of all ages are resilient. Many have bravely withstood the cancellations of sleepaway camp, day camp, activities, sports leagues, amusement parks, concerts, holidays.
Children and adolescents are probably more likely to experience high rates of depression
Even school itself has been tinged rosy with nostalgia for kids in recent weeks, as some elementary schools have been opening their buildings for students to collect belongings left behind in March, like little pandemic loot bags of forgotten comics, erasers and markers.
There have been signs that hope is winning the day, that the lives of Canadian children are returning to normalish, after a temporary shift to virtual classrooms and activities.
But the social determinants of health that are hit hardest by the pandemic, such as food insecurity and parents with precarious work or income, can have a heightened negative effect.
Isolation can also magnify the effects of mental illnesses and psychological problems among children, such as anxiety, depression, loneliness, despair.
In the early days of the pandemic and lockdowns, Katherine Hay, CEO of Kids Help Phone, told CBC the service was seeing a 350 per cent jump in calls to the national help line, and was anticipating 2,000 calls, texts and chats each day from young people as the lockdowns continued. They were worried about their friends. They were worried about their parents.
A survey in Spain reported in the New York Times found almost nine in ten parents noticed changes in their children’s emotions and behaviour, such as difficulty concentrating, irritability and anxiety.
The picture is different at the various life stages. Parents of newborns have had to contend with the risk posed by being in hospital, and potentially exposed to the COVID-19 virus, and seeking clinical care in the first weeks after birth.
Babies, too, may be missing the opportunities for social development. Toddlers certainly are. And while to children it may seem ideal to have parents constantly at their side and service, to stir-crazy exhausted parents it can seem the opposite.
It is in older children, who are more aware of the world, where the worry of psychological trauma increases
A survey showed 72 per cent of child care centres closed in Canada, and that this hit the providers hard.
“To get child care back up and running, governments must find ways to bring employees back to the sector,” said Don Giesbrecht, chief executive officer for the Canadian Child Care Federation. “This means addressing the problem of low wages and inadequate compensation, and putting in place special funding to make sure that child care facilities are safe for both children and staff.”
One piece of advice to parents, published in The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health by clinical psychologists in the U.K., urged parents not to just simplify the language and concepts they used to talk to children about the pandemic. It urged them to also consider that between the ages of four and seven, a child is developing a sense of conscience, while having a poor understanding of the science of disease. Because of the childhood tendency to magical thinking, there is a risk of harmful misunderstanding.
“Adults need to be vigilant that children are not inappropriately blaming themselves or feeling that the illness is a punishment for previous bad behaviour,” the authors wrote.
It is in older children, who are more aware of the world, where the worry of psychological trauma increases. Not just those who may grieve the loss of grandparents, for example, but also those who have simply lived through a generational disaster, played out daily on the internet. An unprecedented culture-wide fear is only just now retreating after three months.
The same journal reported that “children who were isolated or quarantined during pandemic diseases were more likely to develop acute stress disorder, adjustment disorder and grief. Thirty per cent of the children who were isolated or quarantined met the clinical criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder. Furthermore, separation from parents or parental loss during childhood also has long-term adverse effects on mental health, including a higher risk of developing mood disorders and psychosis, and “death by suicide in adulthood.”
Solutions for parents, the report suggests, include the modelling of good behaviour and encouragement of routine and exercise.
The trouble is that, in summer, those tasks are often downloaded onto camp counsellors and other authorities of a normal childhood summer.
Adults need to be vigilant that children are not inappropriately blaming themselves
In a large scale meta-analysis newly published, British researchers found that the “loneliness that may result from disease containment measures in the COVID-19 context could be associated with subsequent mental health problems in young people.
“Children and adolescents are probably more likely to experience high rates of depression and probably anxiety during and after enforced isolation ends,” the team wrote, calling for counterstrategies as an urgent international priority.
“This may increase as enforced isolation continues. Clinical services should offer preventative support and early intervention where possible and be prepared for an increase in mental health problems.”