It’s a Complex Problem
According to a wide range of experts, prolonged school closures associated with the coronavirus pandemic are likely to have a significant and negative effect on children’s learning. This will leave some students behind academically for years to come, and even leading to meaningful lost income throughout their lifetimes.
To compound the problem, research shows that most children’s mental health disorders begin in childhood and, if not identified and treated early, will impact that child’s development, potentially leading to poor health and social outcomes.
How do we collectively and collaboratively address the growing threats to children and adolescents’ mental and potential financial health? Before we explore some solutions, we need to understand the problem better.
- Interrupted learning: Schooling provides essential education and, when schools close, children and youth are deprived of opportunities for growth and development. The disadvantages are disproportionate for underprivileged learners who tend to have fewer educational opportunities beyond school. Some modeling suggests that the loss of learning during World War II’s extraordinary systemic crisis still harmed former students’ lives some 40 years later. And neither is the impact of lost learning confined to the individual level: For whole societies closing down education today, there will likely be significant consequences tomorrow.
- Confusion and stress for teachers: When schools close, especially unexpectedly and for unknown durations, teachers are often unsure of their obligations and how to maintain connections with students to support learning. Transitions to distance learning platforms can be challenging for some, even in the best circumstances. In many contexts, school closures lead to furloughs or separations for teachers.
- Parents unprepared for distance and homeschooling: When schools close, parents are often asked to facilitate the learning of children at home and struggle to perform those duties. This is especially true for parents with limited education and resources.
- Challenges creating, maintaining, and improving distance learning: Demand for distance learning skyrockets when schools close and often overwhelm existing portals to remote education. Moving learning from classrooms to homes at scale and in a hurry presents enormous challenges, both human and technical.
- High economic costs: Working parents are more likely to miss work when schools close, to take care of their children. This results in wage loss and tends to impact productivity and create more stress in the home.
- Rise in dropout rates: It is a challenge to ensure children and youth return and stay in school when schools reopen after closures. This is especially true of protracted closures and when economic shocks place pressure on children to work and generate income for financially distressed families.
- Increased exposure to violence and exploitation:
When schools shut down, early marriages increase.
More children are recruited into gangs.
Sexual exploitation of girls and young women rises.
Teenage pregnancies become more common.
Child labor grows.
Addressing the increasing threats to children and adolescents’ mental health must become one of the top priorities on our nation’s agenda. The discussion needs to recognize that we are talking about responding to the needs of an important population and their future, but in many ways, we are talking about the future of our nation as a whole.
A direct consequence of putting our children’s mental health at the top of the agenda is the acknowledgment and the commitment to securing adequate funding is appropriated to mitigate the growing threat. The funding cannot be limited to the current emergency. It must include what is needed over the next several years until our children have to recover from this widespread trauma.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic is a global threat, international communities, researchers, professionals, and policymakers should integrate their work and discoveries to facilitate proactive sharing of psychological and social information. This can be used to create interventions that prioritize the provision of immediate and long-term strategies to reduce mental health impacts on children and adolescents during school closures.
Governments must be encouraged to implement the widespread use of remote therapy and virtual mental health services in the short-term to not delay services for children and youth with past mental health treatment for pre-existing needs.
In conjunction with encouraging the more widespread use of remote therapy, there needs to be a sustained campaign to educate the public regarding the benefits and effectiveness of teletherapy to increase its public adoption.
Aside from remote therapy where the children work directly with a therapist, the plethora of mental health apps that are now available deserves a closer look. Already the market for these apps is growing among adults with many positive results. These apps may hold great potential for both children and adolescents.
Governments should promote the principals, presidents, and professionals of schools and colleges to coordinate with community mental health agencies to deliver services within school settings. This would potentially improve the continuity of mental health and physical health care.