The study includes locations that have been amongst the biggest COVID-19 hotspots and/or had the most stringent lockdowns—including the USA, Italy, Chile, and Victoria, Australia—alongside locations where there has been minimal interference to school life, such as Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, where lockdown lasted just three weeks.
“We’re covering both ends of the spectrum, from those experiencing a short lockdown to those who have been in lockdown for most of 2020, with all the variations in between,” says Dr Skrzypiec. “So, we’ll see how the length of time increases the risk of depression and anxiety.”
While analysis of the results was still at a preliminary stage at the time of writing, some patterns have already emerged.
“The students in Northern Territory, in lockdown for only three weeks, enjoyed it,” says Dr Skrzypiec. “When asked what was the best thing about lockdown, they said things like, I can sleep in, I can do lessons in my pyjamas, I can eat or go to the bathroom whenever I like, I can spend time with my pets.
“They did miss people who they didn’t get to see regularly, but they coped very well. So, our impression was that just a few weeks had no impact—it was just like school holidays for them.”
“This contrasted with participants in Victoria, who experienced the longest and most restrictive lockdown in Australia, where we see rates of anxiety and depression definitely elevated,” she says.
“The longer students were away from their friends, the more they were impacted. They stayed in touch—mainly through social media and texting—and at least 20 percent stayed in touch on an hourly basis, but they still missed their friends. The physical presence makes a difference.”
These participants were much more likely to talk about loneliness and to say there was ‘nothing good about lockdown’.
Another major impact the researchers observed was in changes to routine. Students who were no longer participating in their usual extracurricular activities such as sports, ballet or Scouts, described feeling ‘worthless’ and like they had ‘no purpose’.
This relates to what psychologists call eudemonia, the sense of wellbeing and flourishing that comes from a sense of purpose.
“In a team or ballet group, you feel a sense of belonging and like you’re functioning as part of a whole to achieve a goal,” says Dr Skrzypiec. “All those kinds of things help give young people their sense of identity. If you take them away, you have to find some other way to satisfy that important sense of wellbeing.”
For many participants, being with family was expressed as the best thing about lockdown, yet for others it was the worst, reflecting the greater stress the pandemic placed upon entire families. Cyberbullying, which was expected to rise, showed no increase amongst participants, but many described more aggression from siblings and parents—"they said things like, Mum and Dad are stressed, so they yell more and tell us off more,” says Dr Skrzypiec.
From the significant increase in calls to support lines in Australia and overseas, it is known that pandemic-related unemployment, anxiety and guilt at separation from older relatives, and missed rites of passage such as weddings, funerals and birthdays, have placed greater stress on adults, which has inevitably also impacted their children.
While it is not yet known how statistics for domestic violence, alcohol and drug dependence have changed in Australia during the pandemic, these are also outcomes of increased stress. In other countries, domestic violence against both women and girls has increased by as much as 25-30 percent, in what UN Women is calling a ‘shadow pandemic’.
For children and youth in countries where the COVID-19 mortality rate has been significantly higher than in Australia, the effects have been even more devastating.
“In Australia, I don’t think we realise the full impact of the global mortality rate, because very few people have had the experience of losing someone to COVID. In Italy, however, every single one of our colleagues has lost someone close to them.
“Some study participants talked about the pain of losing grandparents and not being able to say goodbye. Statistics in the USA indicate that a significant number of children have also lost parents,” Dr Skrzypiec says.
In fact, research by the United Hospital Fund estimates that between March and July 2020 alone, 4,200 of the 4 million children in New York State lost a parent or caregiver to COVID-19—a rate of 1 per 1000 children. It also shows 325,000 children were pushed into, or near, poverty. Both of these factors will have lifelong consequences for their health and wellbeing.
Dr Skrzypiec says a surprising finding of the lockdown study has been that while anxiety and depression went up for participants, resilience also increased.
“It could be that some students rose to the occasion, stepping up to take increased responsibility for helping the situation,” she says. “Some saw their parents were stressed and did their best to help and watch out for siblings. For others, parents may have been supporting them more.”
Dr Skrzypiec was inspired to launch this study because she felt that while there was a big focus on adult mental health and wellbeing during lockdown, children were being overlooked.
“Students were told, you will learn from home, you will study from home, but not much thought was given to what else they would need in isolation other than getting their lessons online. It was an emergency response dealing with the immediate issue, while wellbeing was a secondary consideration.”
“I don’t think we realise the level of social impact school has for young people. But social interactions and team activities during adolescence are paramount for promoting wellbeing and happiness, including feeling validated, cared for, understood and accepted. And that’s especially important at an age when kids are moving away from their reliance on parents.”
Dr Skrzypiec says the most important outcome from the study to date is understanding the critical importance of wellbeing as an aspect of education.
“There has been a long-running debate amongst educators about whether we should focus on academia or wellbeing,” she says. “Now people are beginning to realise just how interconnected wellbeing and academia are—they go hand in hand. So much so that China is introducing counsellors into schools for the very first time. They were thinking about it before, but COVID has clearly shown when we move learning online, both learning and wellbeing are affected.”
“One of our early recommendations will be that schools need to stay in touch with their students beyond the academic realm—that remote learning should also comprise elements of wellbeing, where teachers ‘check in’ on their students’ emotional state.
“Another recommendation is that students coming out of lockdown need greater support to ensure their anxiety and depression don’t escalate. We are seeing this happening with some Australian schools already, giving students opportunities to talk about their experience and making individual referrals to support services, so that students have issues addressed quickly.
“If they don’t get the support they need, we know their depression and anxiety levels are only likely to increase as school becomes more demanding and they progress to higher education and the world of work.”
With the economic impacts of COVID also creating long-term employment challenges for school leavers, university students and new graduates, it is even more important to address these issues expediently and support good mental health.
Just over 700 students in Australia participated in the study, from schools across the Northern Territory, South Australia and Victoria, with another 7,700 students representing the other participating countries, which also included France, Greece, Malta, Turkey, Spain, Portugal, Poland, Russia, Israel, The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Mexico, India and Indonesia.
The research consortium, collectively known as the Global Research Alliance, was founded by Dr Skrzypiec in 2018. It is entirely voluntary and based on the mission of researchers around the world coming together to make life better for young people.
This is the second major study of the Alliance, following an examination of peer aggression amongst close friends and its longer-term impact on future relationships.
A third study, led by the Italian team, is also looking at teacher experience during the pandemic.
Dr Skrzypiec is extremely grateful to the people who willingly gave their time and feedback for this important research.
“I want to thank all the people who participated—the schools that took time to encourage their students to respond, and the students who responded so honestly and articulately. And, of course, all our colleagues overseas who undertook this research in their free time.”
Dr Skrzypiec’s work is supported by resources from Flinders and complements a number of current research projects and programs within the University’s Órama Institute for Mental Health & Wellbeing to assist people through the mental health challenges caused by COVID-19.
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