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1 in 5 Kids Showed Signs of Depression During Quarantine, Study Finds

Quarantine can lead to mental health problems in kids.

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Key Takeaways

  • A recent survey conducted in China revealed 1 in 5 children showed signs of depression during quarantine.
  • 19% of study participants also reported symptoms of anxiety.
  • These results should inform US parents as they look for ways to prevent childhood depression during the pandemic.

Researchers in China found that 1 in 5 children showed signs of depression during quarantine, according to a recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics. In addition to an increase in depression, anxiety also rose in children during quarantine.

Understanding what’s happening to children in China (who went into quarantine earlier than kids in the United States) can help US parents be more proactive about addressing mental health issues.

Mental Illness Symptoms Among Children in China

Researchers surveyed 1,784 children in the Hubei province of China to assess their mental health following shutdowns caused by the pandemic.

The students, who ranged from second graders to sixth graders, were asked questions related to their fears of contracting COVID-19, as well as any symptoms related to depression and anxiety. On average, the students were out of school for 38 days.

The study, which was published in April of 2020, found that 23% of children reported symptoms of depression. 19% of students reported symptoms of anxiety.

It’s too early to know the long-term effects that quarantine might have on children’s mental health. Will relaxed social distancing rules improve their mental health? Will kids be traumatized by their experiences in quarantine?

Fortunately, being proactive about children's mental health during this difficult time might help address and prevent mental health issues before they get worse.

What US Parents Can Do Now

It’s understandable that children in China experienced higher than normal rates of depression and anxiety while in quarantine.

The inability to see their friends and attend their activities can certainly have a serious impact on kids’ psychological well-being.

Many of the children were also distressed about the pandemic itself. Whether they feared getting sick, feared for the safety of their loved ones, or were concerned about their family’s financial situation, many of the students in the survey acknowledged the pandemic was worrisome.

Fortunately, there are some things parents in the US can do right now to be proactive about promoting good mental health for their children.

Use Empowering Language

Language like, "You can’t go to school this year,” or “We’re stuck home all weekend,” implies you are victims. And it may cause kids to feel hopeless and helpless about the situation.

Use language that empowers everyone. Say things like, “We’re choosing to stay home to help people stay healthy,” or “You’re going to start school online this year because it’s safer right now.”

It’s OK to admit that you don’t always like staying home. But, emphasize that you’re choosing to social distance in an effort to help other people stay healthy.

Talk About Feelings

Make it a priority to check in with your kids about how they're feeling. Ask everyone privately, “How are you doing these days?” You might also do a family check-in over dinner and acknowledge your own feelings too by saying something like, “I know this is tough sometimes not being able to do all the things we usually enjoy doing.”

Be careful not to minimize or dismiss your kids’ feelings. Saying things like, “Missing soccer this year is a small price to pay,” or “Don’t be scared,” sends a message that their feelings are wrong.

It’s important for kids to know that feeling scared, frustrated, angry, or lonely is just as acceptable as feeling happy.

The key is to just make sure that they have the skills and tools they need to deal with those uncomfortable emotions in a healthy way.

Have conversations about what helps them when they’re sad or how they can calm down when they’re angry. Help them experiment with different strategies to discover which coping skills work best for them.

Create Routines

Most kids do better when they have some structure in their daily routine.

So even if they aren’t going to school during normal hours or you have no plans for the weekend, give them some structure.

Set aside time to study, do chores, and play. You might also schedule some family time to play a game, watch a movie, or get some exercise.

Knowing what to expect every day—like having a snack in the middle of the morning—can help them feel better during a time of uncertainty.

Schedule Fun Activities

It’s good for kids (and adults) to have something to look forward to. Of course, scheduling fun activities during the pandemic can be a little challenging, however.

You might not be able to do the activities you’re used to doing, like watching a baseball game or eating at your favorite restaurant.

But with a little creativity, you can find fun things to do that are still safe.

And while watching a movie might not be something you normally schedule, consider scheduling family fun. Putting it in the calendar and telling everyone the plan gives the whole family something to look forward to—and that can be good for everyone’s mental health.

Help Them Stay Social

Help your kids stay connected with their friends. Interacting with their peers can give them a sense of normalcy while also improving their well-being.

If they aren’t attending school in-person you might set up a video chat group so they can have “virtual get-togethers.”

You might also consider letting them play games with their friends online so they can do something besides just “talk.” Younger kids may have trouble maintaining a video chat for any length of time but they may engage in an online game with a friend for much longer.

If it’s safe to set up in-person play dates, make sure to do so. You might find playing together outdoors, like in a public park, feels like a safer option than having a child come into your home.

Get Professional Help

Being proactive about your child’s mental health may help ward of some mental health issues. But, you can’t always prevent mental health issues, despite your best efforts.

If your child appears to be depressed or anxious, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are doing something wrong or that you aren’t doing enough to help them. Some kids are just more susceptible to mental health issues than others (due to personality, genetics, and other factors that may be beyond your control).

What This Means for You

The pandemic has been incredibly stressful for everyone, kids included. It's important to be mindful of how your children are feeling during this time. If you’re concerned, talk to your child’s pediatrician. The physician may recommend counseling. If it’s not safe to see a therapist in person, you may be able to set up online appointments so your child can get help from home.

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  1. Xie X, Xue Q, Zhou Y, et al. Mental health status among children in home confinement during the coronavirus disease 2019 outbreak in Hubei province, China. JAMA Pediatrics. 2020. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2020.1619