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Corona crisis: How great is the psychological burden for children and adolescents?

The restrictive measures in the Corona crisis saved many lives and made life difficult for many. The lockdown has drastically changed the everyday lives of children and young people. Kathrin Sevecke, Director of the University Clinic for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Head of the Department for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at the LKH Hall asked.

Contact with friends, social exchange with peers and regular school attendance are important elements of everyday life and the psychological and psychosocial health of young people. "A prolonged exclusion from these learning and experience spaces harms children and young people in their cognitive, emotional and social development and leaves traces that are already visible and will continue to show for a long time after the restrictions have been lifted," says one current statement of the Austrian Society for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Psychosomatics and Psychotherapy, of which Kathrin Sevecke is Vice-President.

Kathrin Sevecke @schafgans dgph

Ms. Sevecke, how stressful is the Corona crisis for children and young people?

The impact on children and young people is great in every way. Your life has changed a lot in a short time because the structure of everyday life has disappeared - on the one hand for the children and adolescents themselves, on the other hand for the rest of the family. As a result, a lot has gotten mixed up in the family environment. The stressful thing was not so much the real threat posed by the virus, but rather the children's subjective experience of the threat. Often it is secondary consequences, such as the parents' economic problems, that threaten and worry children. Whether and how much children experience a situation as stressful depends heavily on how caregivers react to the crisis. In any case, these secondary consequences have put the children and adolescents to full use.

What can be reported from your daily work?

We see three different effects in children: There is a small group that tended to benefit from the lockdown. These are those who felt great pressure to perform at school or were bullied and now felt relieved at home. However, this profit is only short-term, because when school starts the pressure will be greater than before. Above all, the crisis has a disadvantageous effect on those children who have lost their connection to school and lessons due to the lack of access to social media. Finally, there are those children who suffer particularly from the loss of a safe school environment because they live in highly pathological family structures. During this time, we have recorded many acute stressful situations and emergencies due to family disputes. We also find the increased consumption of illegal substances among those adolescents who were already on drugs before the crisis particularly striking. One reason could be that the young people had more time because the offers from outside simply no longer existed. The internet and social media were also used more intensively during this time, but no figures are available yet. On the other hand, the added value of new media is also evident in the phase in which access to inpatient and outpatient facilities in the field of child and adolescent psychiatry was limited.

You are leading a study on the psychosocial effects of this crisis. Are there any initial findings?

The study is just getting started. We will examine the effects on children in the hotspots of North and South Tyrol in kindergartens, elementary schools and middle schools. We ask the parents about the behavior and symptoms of their children and also children from the age of eight themselves. Together with mayors, kindergarten pedagogues and teachers, we work out open questions for parents regarding their children in a "task force", so that the children's reactions are still unknown can be recorded. From this we develop a screening instrument for the early detection of stress. We would also like to define “red flags” in paediatrics that are used in such crisis situations.

What behavior signals that the load is getting too great?

In principle, children and adolescents are more dependent on their psychological environment than adults. Children and adolescents have more worries when adults also have worries, for example because of mental illness, job loss, short-time work or financial difficulties. If the school structures then also collapse, this is seen as very threatening by children and young people. What we always look at are fears, sleep disorders, compulsive actions, listlessness, depression, i.e. internalizing symptoms; Depending on the psychological character, the processing of the problem can also be directed outwards and manifest itself in increased drug consumption, unbridled Internet use or non-compliance with rules.

To what extent can a sense of responsibility be demanded from children and young people?

This is of course very different in the age range from 0 to 18 years. Kindergarten and elementary school children, for example, orient themselves on what parents and their caregivers set an example in school and kindergarten. The reference radius of young people is much larger; In addition to family and school, there are also other networks, their independence and personal responsibility is much greater. I am of the opinion that young people are already rationally able to understand regulations and adhere to them - whether they then do it is another question.

How dramatic do you see the scenario of a second lockdown?

A lot has been asked of children and young people in the past few weeks. In addition to restricting social contacts, the sword of Damocles hung over them, possibly infecting their grandparents. But let us also consider that we are still a long way from normalcy for children and young people: Schools are still limited, psychologically stabilizing subjects such as music and sports are not yet held, and childcare during the summer holidays is not yet regulated. A 17-year-old can certainly deal with the lack of daily structures better than an eight-year-old. Overcoming these challenges depends above all on the family framework; Well-off families will certainly feel less of these restrictions than children from socially disadvantaged families. Crises hit the socially weak more and more. We know that mental illness is partly caused by socio-economic circumstances. We will take a close look at the individual and family level to see whether there are long-term post-traumatic stressors in children and adolescents or whether symptoms that have already been diagnosed have worsened. The Austrian Society for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Psychosomatics and Psychotherapy (ÖGKJP) also advocates that schools and childcare facilities as well as medical-therapeutic facilities are immediately ramped up to full operation in all regions of the country in compliance with the prescribed hygiene measures, to avert further serious harm to the children and families.

(10.06.2020, D. Heidegger, images: AdobeStock_Andrey, schafgans_dgph)


University Clinic for Psychiatry, Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics in Children and Adolescents