Actively screening all children is vital for their mental wellbeing during and after the pandemic, according to a child health expert.
With households going into lockdown to help flatten the coronavirus curve, many of the related stressors have been potentially passed down to children, placing them at risk of mental health issues.
Director of the national positive parenting network Triple P, Carol Markie-Dadds, called the upheaval and stress Australian children and families are experiencing from the pandemic ‘unparalleled’.
‘Public health measures have already challenged families, but the surrounding economic crisis is set to challenge them even further,’ she said.
In addition to loneliness, economic pressure was identified as a significant trigger for anxiety and stress in Australian households, directly affecting family wellbeing.
The recently announced National Mental Health and Wellbeing Pandemic Response Plan comes in response to stressors being transferred to children and, if not addressed, potentially developing into long-term mental health issues.
A key objective of the plan is to respond to recovery actions to reduce risk factors and prioritise the needs of children, young people and families who are particularly vulnerable to mental health concerns during and after COVID-19.
The pandemic response plan has committed to a preventive approach, through collaboration with governments, primary care and the community, to the social and economic stressors being experienced in the home, at work and in education settings.
GP and Chair of the RACGP Specific Interests Child and Young Person’s Health network, Dr James Best, emphasised how important early intervention is to address these concerns.
‘I think this is possibly the most important aspect of COVID-19 concerning children,’ Dr Best told newsGP.
‘People are worried about the Kawasaki-type disease emerging in children, which is an issue, but with low COVID-19 numbers in Australia [is] a rare occurrence.
‘[But] I think mental health issues are more important, as there has been huge amounts of stress at a community level, especially for children who are vulnerable and more at risk, such as those with developmental issues, special needs, and those with existing mental health issues.
‘Dysfunction levels have skyrocketed for children in these at-risk groups.’
Dr Best believes this issue needs to be on GPs’ radar to screen for the mental health of all children, as well as for their parents and carers.
‘Active screening will be appreciated by the community for those who are under stress due to financial issues, work, general anxiety, and fear from the pandemic,’ he said.
Some children are vulnerable to greater risk during lockdown.
Dr Best also places focus on children whose environments may place them at other risks, such as exposure to family and domestic violence and alcohol and other drug use in the household.
An Alcohol and Drug Foundation (ADF) survey of 1000 parents across Australia revealed that since the lockdown, one in five parents has started drinking daily, or every other day, in front of their children.
The ADF released the statistics to raise awareness of positive role-modelling and to encourage Australians to rethink their alcohol consumption, particularly for parents and carers experiencing stress from home-schooling during the coronavirus pandemic and turning to alcohol.
A quarter of parents blame the stress of home-schooling for their increased drinking, while one in three attribute it to coronavirus-related anxiety and stress. The ADF has raised concerns about the health impacts for people drinking more than the recommended daily limit of alcohol, as well as the message it might send to children.
With the majority of Australian schoolchildren set to return to school by early June, Dr Best said that while some concerns about the virus may remain, it is important for children to rebuild their social connections outside the home, particularly for those considered vulnerable.
‘Children have had less access to social groups and activities [during the lockdown], such as seeing their friends, sport activities, regular interaction with paediatricians,’ he said.
‘Vulnerable kids are the ones who most need that social connection. Part of the reason for schools reopening is the economic impact, but as children make up the fabric of our society, they experience the mental health flow-on effect of having schools closed.’
Dr Best believes that if the impact of the pandemic on children’s mental health is not addressed, it could develop into longer-term concerns.
‘If you have childhood mental health issues, that can have a lifelong impact,’ he said.
‘Childhood is a very vulnerable time, hence the importance of actively screening all children.
‘The focus has been more on the physical aspects during COVID-19, but the mental health impacts are going to be enormous.’
Ms Markie-Dadds’ sentiments echo those of Dr Best.
‘We have acted early and decisively to address the physical health threat of COVID-19, now is the time to act … to build resilience in our children, families and communities, to navigate through the compounded crises caused by COVID-19,’ she said.
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