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The pandemic is leaving... And is the mental health of children and adolescents coming back?

Over the past 18 months, the world's population has experienced a pandemic with significant impact on their mental health and well-being. The measures to prevent the pandemic, such as multiple home confinements and changes in daily routine, led to higher levels of psychological distress, stress and psychopathological symptomatology in the general population and, in particular, in the younger population.

In Portugal, it is estimated that one in two young people in school age is experiencing psychological distress, with long-term consequences that can either develop into a mental disorder or compromise other areas of future health. Since the beginning of the pandemic, more children have been admitted to public hospitals with somatization problems, behavioral disorders and school difficulties, and adolescents showed a significant increase in cases of suicide attempts, self-injurious behavior and sleep disorders. The difficulty in dealing with stress and the variables associated with the pandemic have led to an increase in the demand for psychological and psychiatric monitoring in Portuguese hospitals, namely in the Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Services. The international reality goes in the same direction, and, according to some studies, the number of depressive and anxious disorders in the younger population has doubled since the beginning of the pandemic. But why has the mental health of children and adolescents been so affected? Is the health system (especially the Portuguese health system) currently prepared to respond to the increase in this number of cases?

Psychological suffering associated with the pandemic

The preventive measures associated with the pandemic, such as closing school and leisure places, distance learning and social isolation had a particular negative impact on the lives of children and adolescents. Children, due to the various periods of home confinement, lived in a restricted family environment with limited social interactions, and with parents often torn between managing work activities and providing care. Specifically, school-aged children forced into distance learning experienced an absence of direct interaction with teachers and the rest of the school environment, which may have had a negative impact on the acquisition of learning and social skills. In general, the pandemic limited the children's experiences during a period of development usually marked by the active search for experiences, communication and relationships, essential to the socio-cognitive and emotional maturation of the human being. Adolescents were also subjected to numerous changes and adaptations in their routine: the limitation of social interactions had a negative impact on their mental health; the increase of time spent in front of screens decreased the time spent with family and offline socializing (not ignoring the technological developments and responses that also proved to be essential, when properly used); the absence of physical activities, even if, in part, replaced by online modalities, also had a significant impact on the life and health (physical and mental) of adolescents; projects were postponed, plans, objectives and goals set were readjusted, and many experiences postponed (e.g., parties, meetings, trips, concerts), interfering with how adolescents grew up, feel, and project their future.

Transversal to all groups of age is the possible loss of close relatives and/or the infection by COVID-19 itself, more or less symptomatic; a decrease in physical activity levels and a deregulation of sleep patterns during confinement, often associated with longer exposure time to screens, less varied food and less fresh products, contributing to future health problems (e.g., childhood and adult obesity) were also observed.

The way forward is to encourage people to ask for psychological and psychiatric help; to fight the stigma associated with mental health. In addition, the state needs to enable effective mental health responses, and it is necessary to invest in quality public and private services, with the integration of evidence-based interventions in the health, education, and social protection sectors, specifically focused on younger population.

At the Mental Health Clinic Isabel Henriques we have a multidisciplinary team that can help you to respond to your needs. Psychotherapy sessions are available for children and adolescents, as well as for fathers and mothers who have difficulties in dealing with their children and/or with their parental role.

Our children and adolescents will be the adults of the future. Let's take care of them.

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