Impact of school closures has been "profound"

1.5 billion children worldwide affected
  • Deborah Condon

Young people in Ireland have experienced "profound losses" due to the closure of schools during the COVID-19 pandemic, a leading expert in child psychiatry has said.

Currently, at least 90% of young learners worldwide - that is 1.5 billion young people - are now out of education.

According to Dr Elizabeth Barrett, a consultant in child and adolescent liaison psychiatry at Temple Street Children's University Hospital in Dublin, the COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to have both negative and positive effects on young people's mental health. However undoubtedly, "young people have experienced profound losses".

"Limitations of social contacts, educational losses, psychological impact of infection control precautions, dilemmas regarding the Junior and Leaving Certificate examinations, and sadly for some, fear, grief and bereavement have weighed heavily on the mental health of some students," Dr Barrett said.

She also noted that the "ongoing reduced ability to play and exercise" could impact on sleep, mood and anxiety levels.

"Furthermore, children with pre-existing adverse life experiences, mental health disorders, or medical illnesses, may feel this most acutely," she said.

She also pointed out that school closures have impacted the health of parents and carers, as well as highlighting the "socioeconomic and digital divides" that are in existence.

However, Dr Barrett said that there may also be some benefits for young people.

"The experience of going through an event as a community and coping with challenges arising, and the opportunity to spend more quality time with family members, may have positive impacts for some. For others, a break from school may prove a welcome respite," she commented.

She said that while the evidence so far suggests that COVID-19 is generally milder in children than adults, and children are not "super spreaders" of the virus, the return to school will still require "careful consideration of medical and mental health risks".

For young people with intellectual disabilities or neurodevelopmental disorders in particular, changes in routine "may exacerbate distress and mental health issues".

"School reopening and future planning will require planning around medical and mental health needs. International approaches involve consideration of mitigation measures (reducing contacts, physical distancing, physical supports e.g. ventilation and enhanced hygiene). Educationally, a range of approaches, including remote and blended learning, are needed," Dr Barrett said.

She added that vulnerable groups who may have been assisted by supports available within the school system, now lack that critical support and this is "an acute concern for health services, clinicians, policy makers and wider society".

Dr Barrett made her comments in the Irish Medical Journal.


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