Up to 60% of children have feelings of depression made worse by Covid-19

Covid-19 has exacerbated depression in young people living in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Covid-19 has exacerbated depression in young people living in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Image: Esa Alexander

Covid-19 has worsened depression with on average 50-60% of young people living in Sub-Saharan Africa experiencing negative feelings and poor wellbeing since the pandemic took hold in the region. 

This is according to Unicef's State of the World’s Children Report issued on Tuesday, which called the impact of Covid-19 on mental health in children and young people the “tip of the iceberg”.

The survey forms part of Unicef’s Changing Childhood Project, with about 20,000 people interviewed by telephone in 21 countries. The interview represented two groups, people between the ages of 15-24 years, and those 40 years and older. The full findings of that project will be released in November. 

According to the findings of the World’s Children Report on the affects of Covid-19, Unicef found :

  • Since Covid-19, on average 50-60% of young people have been experiencing negative feelings and poor wellbeing.
  • Across the region, toll-free child helplines have reported an increase in calls from children and young people experiencing mental distress and incidences of violence.
  • The long-term mental health impact of Covid-19 is yet unknown and still evolving; loss of caregiver, loss of opportunities and fragmentation of the protective environment are predicted to have long-term affects.
  • Within the region many children live in multigenerational households and are cared for by older family members often when parents have been lost to Ebola, Aids or have moved away for economic reasons, these older generations are at greater risk of falling victim to Covid-19

According to Unicef: “Many of the risk factors for mental health identified in the report have their roots in exposure to adverse and challenging social conditions in early life, such as poverty, experiencing humanitarian crisis, violence or abuse, inadequate nutrition and HIV which are pervasive throughout eastern and Southern Africa.”

The pandemic, the report finds, has highlighted mental health and wellbeing as “isolated from friends and neighbours, and deprived of comforting routines, many of us became truly aware, perhaps for the first time, of how turmoil in the external world can affect the world inside our heads”.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, the report found that self-harm is the fourth most common cause of death among 15- to-19-year-olds. “For far too many of these children, access to mental health services is out of reach. Not every country has a policy for child mental health. Many are deterred from seeking help by stigma and misconceptions that equate mental health with witchcraft or spiritual possessions and a general lack of awareness among people that recovery is possible.”

Access to services is hampered by a scarcity of trained workers and professionals, it states, and specialised mental health services remain largely located in urban centres, unreachable by the majority, and these services lack focus on the specific needs of children and young people.

Interventions include the Parenting for Lifelong Health programme, which began in SA in 2013 by the WHO and Unicef. It offers four packages of home-based parenting programmes that rely on local lay workers and are focused on age-appropriate interactions in child development, including attachment, cognitive development, behaviour management, social learning and problem solving. 

Unicef said it has noted reductions in conduct problems and harsh parenting as a result of the interventions. “For adolescents, the interventions have not improved mental health outcomes specifically, but have reduced family violence, depression in caregivers and use of alcohol and drugs.”

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