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University of Limerick lockdown study shows need for greater mental health supports

Wed, 28 Oct 2020

With the country now under further COVID-19 restrictions, a University of Limerick study has been examining the effect that lockdown can have on the mental health of children and adolescents.

COVID-19 has caused major disruptions to the lives of families, through social distancing measures, school closures and lockdown, all of which threaten the wellbeing of young people and their families.

Researchers at UL have been exploring the specific impact of one month in lockdown on the mental health of children and adolescents.

The study, entitled Co-SPACE (COVID-19 Supporting Parents, Adolescents and Children during Epidemics) is led by Dr Jennifer McMahon and a team of researchers at UL. It is linked to a study of the same name in the UK led by Professor Cathy Creswell and Dr Polly Waite of the Department of Psychiatry and Experimental Psychology, University of Oxford.

“Increasingly researchers and practitioners are concerned about the effects of strict restrictions, such as those experienced from March to June, have on young people’s mental health,” explained Dr Jennifer McMahon, lecturer in psychology at UL.

“Our study is showing that during that time their child’s wellbeing was a key concern for parents. Managing their child’s education was also a key concern. We also found that most support services for children with special needs and prior mental health issues had been fully withdrawn or significantly reduced and that many parents were left to cope with their child alone, which is hugely concerning,” she explained.

The UL researchers tracked children and young people’s mental health during one month of the COVID-19 lockdown from the period April 10 to May 22, while strict restrictions were in place. Over 1,800 parents/carers and 400 adolescents have taken part in the study to date and some of these parents and adolescents were tracked across the month.

Early results from the study, which asked parents and carers about their children’s mental health through the COVID-19 crisis, show:

  • Parents/carers of primary school age children taking part in the survey reported no significant increase in their child’s emotional, behavioural, and restless/attentional difficulties. However, emotional difficulties, such as feeling unhappy, worried, being clingy and experiencing physical symptoms associated with worry were slightly elevated at baseline and follow-up
  • Parents/carers of children with Special Educational Needs (SEN) and those with a pre-existing mental health difficulty reported a reduction in their child’s emotional difficulties and no change in behavioural or restless/attentional difficulties
  • Adolescents taking part in the survey reported no change in their own emotional or behavioural difficulties, and a reduction in their restless/attentional difficulties

Dr McMahon said: “Our findings indicate that emotional and attentional difficulties increased throughout the period for primary school aged children, but not to a significant level. However emotional difficulties were raised at baseline - which was about three weeks into school closure.

“Also, our sister study in the UK, which had over 10,000 participants, found significant increases on these aspects which suggests that this trend is important,” she added.

However, for some young people with pre-existing mental health issues and special educational needs there was a reduction in emotional difficulties, Dr McMahon explained.

“There may be a variety of factors involved in this but it suggests that school may in fact be a source of anxiety or worry and that these young people will likely need extra and ongoing support as they settle back into regular schooling,” she added.

Dr Sharon Houghton, Clinical Psychologist and researcher on the study, further outlined: “For those with pre-existing school refusal and anxiety conditions related to performance and social contact, we would expect a reduction in symptoms in the short-term at least. However, what we do know about anxiety is that when the source of the anxiety is re-introduced, it is likely to return and often in a more acute form.

“Therefore, a supportive approach that has been taken by schools to reintroduce children to the classroom and gradually reintroduce homework and so on, has been of great benefit to our children and adolescents who are more vulnerable,” Dr Houghton added.

Surprisingly, adolescents themselves reported no change in their emotional difficulties and reported a reduction in attentional and restlessness issues, which suggests they adapted somewhat to their circumstances. Parents of this age group also reported improvements in emotional difficulties during this time.

The results suggest that there is diversity in how the lockdown affected children and adolescents and further research is needed to fully understand the range of risk and protective factors for their mental health.

The team are continuing to track the experiences of families and young people as the pandemic unfolds. The first survey takes about half an hour, and subsequent surveys about 15-20 minutes at monthly intervals.

The questions include a range of topics related to family life and relationships, overall health and wellbeing, parenting, education, psychological symptoms and how they and their child are coping during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We are also interested in adolescents’ views and so if parents or carers have a child between 11-18 years there will be an option for them to take part also (once the parent or carer has completed the initial survey). Regular summaries of the research findings will be available on the research website,” added Dr McMahon.

The study is a collaboration between the Teaching for Inclusion (i-TEACH) research lab led by Dr Jennifer McMahon and the Centre for Social Issues led by Professor Orla Muldoon. Other team members are Dr Sharon Houghton, Dr Elaine Gallagher, Dr Cliodhna O’Connor, Megan Ryan and Eibhlin Walsh.

If you are interested in completing the study find the link here: https://tinyurl.com/UL-COSPACE.

For more, see https://www.i-teach.ie/co-space-study.