In March 2020, several restrictions were imposed to control the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in India. One of the largest measures taken was the closing down of schools nationwide
. Today, more than two years later, we see repercussions of a sudden halt of in-person education—a socioeconomic education gap
and learning losses
—amongst many others. An important issue that we might often overlook and the one that can have severe long-term ramifications is that children underwent a crucial period of social development locked inside homes, with little to no peer contact. What are the likely consequences of this, and how can we make up for this loss of psychosocial development, now that in-person schooling is back?
This article explores the body of research on children's psychosocial health issues that have emerged from the pandemic. Concluding the piece are some recommendations to be considered at the forefront of children's mental healthcare policies and interventions henceforth.
An important issue that we might often overlook and the one that can have severe long-term ramifications is that children underwent a crucial period of social development locked inside homes, with little to no peer contact.
World data on children’s mental health post-pandemic
Against the backdrop of rising awareness of and concern for mental health issues, the 2021 UNICEF report on State of the World's Children
—for the first time—focused on children's mental health during COVID. Now more than ever, it is necessary to create support systems for children, as neglecting their psychological well-being means compromising their potential to “learn, work, build meaningful relationships and contribute to the world” (UNICEF SOWC, 2021).
A Netherlands-based study
in 2021 showed that according to children, the most negative impact of lockdown on their daily life pertained to loss of contact with friends and restriction on outdoor activities. A systematic review of 11 countries illustrated that school closure was a key factor in reduced social mixing among children during the lockdown and may be responsible for the majority of the harms resulting from lack of peer interaction.
Developmental psychology researchers
have found childhood to be a crucial phase for cognitive, emotional, and psychosocial skill development. Learned experiences from the environment shape children's lifetime behaviour and success. School is the primary place to develop social competencies, such as self-confidence, friendships, empathy, participation, respect, gratitude, compassion, and responsibility. Social interaction in early childhood is necessary for children to learn to live in society. Therefore, the lack of peer interaction is associated with a poor understanding of group dynamics – which can lead to long-term social rejection.
A systematic review of 11 countries illustrated that school closure was a key factor in reduced social mixing among children during the lockdown and may be responsible for the majority of the harms resulting from lack of peer interaction.
During the pandemic, children were deprived of peer interaction not just from school closure but from the ban on outdoor playtime. World Health Organization (WHO) recommends at least 60 minutes of physical activity a day
for children aged 5-17, as playing in the natural environment enhances children's social, emotional, and cognitive development and helps them learn social cooperation, leadership, and negotiation.
Impact of Life in a lockdown
reported that the effects of the pandemic were far more precarious for children in poor countries. Based on 130,000 children from 22 countries, UNICEF’s report ‘Life in Lockdown’ recommends investment in gender and age-sensitive child mental health problems, promotion of good nutrition and physical activity, and incorporation of digital technology to drive change.
As home to one of the largest populations of 444 million children
, and a nation severely hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is important to look at the Indian context. Importantly, India is a collectivistic society wherein COVID-induced isolation may have had a bigger social-lifestyle shift than in other countries. Children quarantining at medical facilities took the biggest hit, as they faced isolation from immediate family at a time when being close to loved ones serves as a protective factor against psychological disturbances.
Reports of child abuse
were on the rise during the lockdown, and exposure to abuse and violence by caregivers in childhood is known to leave long-lasting effects in the form of impaired brain development, neuropsychiatric distress, substance abuse, and suicidal tendencies.
Children quarantining at medical facilities took the biggest hit, as they faced isolation from immediate family at a time when being close to loved ones serves as a protective factor against psychological disturbances.
Mourali (2021) discussed the psychosocial impact of online education in India
– In the student-centric methodology of our education system, in-person classes enabled teachers to gauge students' understanding through non-verbal cues like eye contact. During COVID-19, an online mode of teaching not only created a gap in this communication but also induced anxiety in children whose home environment was not ideal for learning. It caused mental fatigue for which the required psychological support was unavailable, while also increasing the likelihood of addiction and online bullying.
Considering the severe psychological distress faced by children in lockdown, many lessons can be learnt by looking at policies implemented at the time in India. There were some remarkable policy measures taken by the government to support students during the last two years:
Figure 1: Policy measures to support Children’s mental health during COVID.
Sources: Ministry of Education, Ministry of WCD, CBSE
The way forward
The pandemic is a very recent past—there is a growing body of research examining the effects of lockdown on children's mental health and social development. Moving forward, how can the education sector support students who struggle due to psychosocial issues that came about during the pandemic?
Schools need to make up for the loss of social development by encouraging non-academic peer interaction. In remote education, schools should attempt to simulate an in-person environment by creating 'breaks’ such as lunch and short breaks in between classes, unsupervised by teachers. Moreover, educators should implement a systematic increase in cooperative learning methods, and encourage participatory activities including debates, storytelling, and creative arts. It is also essential to have mental health professionals in every school, who are trained to alleviate students’ social anxieties. Parents are to encourage children to communicate and allow self-disclosure with peers. Research shows that parental and therapist involvement makes interventions more effective.
In remote education, schools should attempt to simulate an in-person environment by creating 'breaks’ such as lunch and short breaks in between classes, unsupervised by teachers.
A progress report on the policies implemented by the government and organisations in the last two years can provide essential data on what worked, what can be improved, and what new measures need to be introduced. The way forward is to sustain and increase the reach of impactful policies. Moreover, there is an urgent need for new evidence-based interventions
that focus on re-immersing children into the education system, while being mindful of the cognitive and psychological losses that are likely to have occurred in the past two years.
Finally, there remains an absence of mental health questionnaires in the most recent National Family Health Survey
(NFHS 5). The world is moving towards acknowledging psychological illnesses as important health issues – and to accelerate policy change for the betterment of children’s mental health, it is high time that India’s national surveys include the same.
Ayesha Thatte was an intern with health initiative.
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