A depiction of a distressed child.

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Psychologists are reporting a worrying increase in the number of children exhibiting mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Guardian Media was informed by mental health professionals that children as young as seven-years-old are going to therapy or counselling to help them cope.

There have been reports of multiple teenagers ending their lives and engaging in self-harm in recent months.

According to one psychologist, who spoke off-the-record, they are currently seeing as many as 100 clients under the age of 18-years-old.

Clinical psychologist Dr Peter Weller described the issue as a worsening one.

“There’s a great deal of uncertainty about what the future holds and that is made worse in the pandemic for young people because their systems and structures have just been disrupted,” Dr Weller said.

“The pandemic causes its own set of stress but it builds on stressors that pre-existed. The young people already had issues with their parents or self-esteem issues or social anxiety issues or academic performance issues, then the pandemic has exacerbated those.”

According to the educator, it also has to be considered that the brains of young people are still developing, meaning that their sense of higher reasoning, thinking and self-control is not fully formed.

They, literally, cannot think straight, he said, adding that there is also hormonal development to consider.

“They don’t have the structure they had before to bounce off. So, young people like to resist. They like to test limits. It’s part of how their brain develops. The challenge is the systems that used to kind of manage them are damaged, so they don’t have the social network of family and friends, necessarily, to respond to them” he said.

“They don’t have the school system there to notice who is going off track and bounce them back in place.

“What do they have to look forward to, you know? In the short term, things are really gloomy…At the extreme, you are going to have the ones who are particularly vulnerable for mental disorders, depression and panic attacks and psychotic breaks” Dr Weller added.

“They may feel so hopeless that they engage in self-harm or suicidal ideation. Unfortunately, there’s a greater risk for actual attempts and completions.”

However, Dr Weller wished to make it clear that not all signs of withdrawal by children are signs of mental illnesses.

He urged parents to get to know their children, as best as possible, so they can come to understand the differences between normal development and more serious issues.

“It really depends on the child, their personality and their developmental stage, and the relationship the parent has with the child…I would recommend to parents that they speak to the professionals first and explain what they are seeing,” Dr Weller said.

‘No adequate safety net for children affected by anxiety, depression’

Clinical psychologist Tiffany Alcantara, who works with teenagers, said the last two years have been excruciating on the mental health of teenagers because they are at the stage of life when a connection with friends and peers is the most important thing to them.

“Not having that connection for two years has really taken its toll. It’s also very difficult for a teenager to structure their day in a disciplined way…They are just completely dysregulated because they don’t have the discipline to structure their day in a way that would make them feel healthy and balanced,” Alcantara said.

“There’s a lot of gloom – depression and anxiety, low motivation, just lacking interest in completing their studies. It’s been really, really difficult.”

Counselling psychologist Anna-Maria Mora lamented that many relationships between parents and their children were distant before the pandemic.

In many cases, they were essentially strangers, she said.

“A lot of them complained about that and that’s why peer groups became so important to them and that’s why when we locked down, a lot of them couldn’t handle it because they were not with their friends to help them feel good about themselves,” Mora said.

The psychologist said children were simply not accustomed to or prepared for the changes brought upon by the pandemic.

Because of this, she said, there would be trauma.

The counselling psychologist expressed concern that there is not an adequate safety net for children affected by the likes of anxiety and depression.

“There is not. There is not. There is not. There has never been a safety net for children and adolescents…when parents go to make an appointment, they still have to wait. Well, the child guidance clinic, I know it used to be six months before you could get your child help. The mental health clinics that they have around – that wait might be around 3-4 weeks,” she said.

She also lamented that many school social workers are overburdened, reducing their ability to spend more meaningful time with students in need.

Advice for parents

According to clinical psychologist Tiffany Alcantara, classic signs of mental illness in children are isolating—not wanting to come out of their room, not interacting with family; oversleeping; staying up late; or changes in appetite— eating more or less.

Alcantara recommended that parents maintain some sort of regularity in their children’s schedules.

“Chores and activities at home, schoolwork, leisure activities, downtime, outdoor time, limited phone/computer screen time is very important. Structure the day in such a way that it feels a bit more balanced, so you could leave them to do it on their own,” she urged.

She also suggested that vaccinated parents can create small pods with other vaccinated families, allowing teenagers to have interaction with their peers.