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Children’s Mental Health Must Be a Priority As We Fight This Pandemic

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By Kevin Frey, CEO, Right To Play International

The change in children’s lives as a result of this crisis has been sudden and seismic. Schools are closed, and their physical interactions with friends, peers and extended family members have ended abruptly. The stress of these changes is enormous. And while so many children are challenged physically by this pandemic, we must not overlook the mental and psychological effects this will have on them.

The state of children’s mental health throughout the crisis will be crucial for their recovery. We must ensure that they can return to their education and their lives in a meaningful and productive way afterwards. If we overlook this crucial aspect of this crisis, too many children could see their futures compromised and disrupted by the damage of unresolved trauma. Our children deserve better.

Children in well-resourced countries are struggling with uncertainty and insecurity. Imagine how much deeper the strain runs for children living in countries already challenged by poverty, conflict and other diseases. We know from past experiences that children’s mental health is deeply affected by outbreaks of infectious disease. In a study from the University of Kentucky on quarantined families during H1N1, quarantined children were four times more likely to show signs of posttraumatic stress disorder.

At the latest count, at least 1.5 billion children are out of school due to school closures.

"For so many of the children we work with, especially children in refugee contexts, schools are a crucial stabilizing element in their lives. They are essential for delivering not just education but for forming the social connections that allow these children to weather crises"

Outbreaks of infectious disease and long periods of isolation can also make children more vulnerable to abuse, neglect and harsher parenting styles as parents try to juggle the stress of earning a living and parenting. Girls are particularly vulnerable, as are children with disabilities.

Their distress is compounded by grief and fear as social bonds unravel, and family members and caregivers who they rely on become unable to provide for them due to illness and stress.

Family members and caregivers rapidly become overwhelmed as they are pressed to become teachers and nurses in addition to their other duties. In some cases, they become sick themselves and require their children to care for them.

This burden falls heavily on children and young people living in crisis situations like conflict or disaster-affected zones and those in refugee contexts. Already vulnerable, these children live in communities that are often the hardest hit by disease, with the fewest resources to care for the severely infected. But current UNICEF and Red Cross guidelines emphasize that concern for children’s mental health must be a priority in epidemic responses. We cannot allow a generation of children to grow up with their lives defined and damaged by the psychological and emotional impacts of this pandemic.

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"My organization Right To Play, specializes in delivering this support through play. During the 2014 Ebola crisis in West Africa we saw significant success using this approach to successfully bolster children’s resilience and mental health amid a deadly epidemic."

Through a range of specially adapted games that are delivered remotely to homes and communities, we equip children with critical knowledge like the importance of handwashing and social distancing in preventing infection. Many of the games are simple enough to be played by a parent and child at home together, with the minimal resources that a refugee or displaced family might have at hand.

Through games and play, we also help them to reduce anxiety, and to process and recover from distress and trauma. By using children’s own enthusiasm for and interest in play, we can pass along crucial information that alleviates their stress, gives them a sense of control over their lives, and helps them adopt protective behaviors.

We cannot allow the COVID-19 pandemic to compromise our children’s mental health. How our children come out of this crisis mentally and emotionally will dictate how they are able to resume and rebuild their lives. With the right support, children can do more than just survive this pandemic, they can build the resilience they need to thrive.