Pandemic exacerbates mental health issues among young people, Dutch study reveals

There was a rise in mental health issues among children and adolescents during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a report published by the Netherlands Youth Institute in collaboration with Dutch researchers. The final report compiled 40 surveys and 26 polls from the period March 2020 – April 2022, conducted by over twenty research institutions in the Netherlands about the effect of the Covid-19 crisis and Covid-19 measures on the mental well-being of children and young adults.

Dr. Tinca JC Polderman, a researcher at Amsterdam UMC, told NL Times that this was done to get a better picture of the situation of young people during the pandemic. “In the media, the message was not always the same. It was confusing for the general public and policymakers.”

The final report, a collaborative effort involving over 20 Dutch research institutions, compiled findings from 40 surveys and 26 polls conducted between March 2020 and April 2022. The study explored the effects of the Covid-19 crisis and related measures on the mental well-being of individuals aged 0-27 years. Polderman added, “This is a more coherent approach to get more sense.”

The report’s key finding indicates a significant increase in internalizing problems, including anxiety disorders, depression, and other psychological issues among young people during the pandemic. These problems, largely internal and not easily observable to others, became more prevalent. On the other hand, externalizing problems such as defiance and antisocial behavior, showed no notable increase during the pandemic.

The report further explored how Covid-19 restrictions, specifically the closures of schools and sports facilities, impacted the mental health of young people. “It is essential to them to meet and be together,” Polderman explained. “This was taken away from them,” she added. While she acknowledged that these measures were implemented for valid reasons, she pointed out that young people were largely excluded from the policymaking process. As a consequence, it was harder for them to comply with these measures in the long term.

The uncertainty and insecurity surrounding the imposed restrictions also contributed to their mental stress. “There were instances where children were unsure whether they would be able to attend school the following week, or even the next day,” Polderman noted.

Polderman highlighted that the impact varied among different groups. Adolescent girls, in particular, experienced the most challenges. “These girls were already more vulnerable due to existing issues prior to the pandemic,” she noted.

However, online schooling had its benefits for children dealing with chronic conditions who already have to stay at home, or anxiety, making the situation somewhat beneficial for them, as they feel they were less isolated. “Every case is different, that’s why we need a more tailored approached when it comes to mental health.”

The report noted that the initial spring 2020 lockdown had considerably less impact on young people compared to the autumn and winter lockdown of 2020-2021. Polderman described the first lockdown as occasionally being perceived as exciting by some young individuals, often enjoying pleasant moments with their families at home. However, the second lockdown was notably more gloomy, she noted.

Both adolescents (ages 12 to 17) and young adults (ages 18 to 27) had minimal concerns about the future during the first lockdown. However, with the onset of the second lockdown, their worries grew significantly, according to the report.

Polderman stressed that most of the mental health problems experienced during the pandemic were not new, but rather pre-existing conditions that the pandemic exacerbated. This can still be seen today. “The pandemic is over, the problems persist,” she said. According to the Dutch public health institute, RIVM, the proportion of young people with mental health complaints has decreased only slightly since the end of the last coronavirus lockdown in early 2022.

Polderman emphasized the need to consider other factors influencing young people’s mental health, including school pressure and social pressures in today’s society. She also noted that “extra stress factors” such as the climate crisis, housing shortage, inflation, and the war in Ukraine tend to intensify existing problems.

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