How the Coronavirus Is Projected to Harm the Youth

The coronavirus, quarantining, and a struggling economy are predicted to take a toll on the mental health of today’s youth. Scientists are getting closer to understanding the neural circuitry behind the negative effects of juvenile quarantine and social isolation.

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The effects of quarantine on children's mental and physical health are vastly different. While quarantine has maintained many children’s safety, the lack of social interaction, one of the most important factors for psychological development, has taken a toll on children’s mental health. Beyond the effects of quarantine, a struggling economy and the coronavirus itself have turned children’s entire worlds upside down as anxiety—and stress levels—have increased. Children will be affected indifferent degrees and ways depending on how personally affected the child was and where COVID-19 had the most impact. Mental illnesses tend to develop at a young age, making it important to pay attention to the mental health of children.

Due to the quick-spreading nature of the virus and the slow nature of studies, there is not much research on the effects of the coronavirus on mental health. However, studies from previous pandemics and disease outbreaks can be applied here. Studies have already shown that there are significant differences in children’s short-term mental health before and after the coronavirus not only in America but also around the world. A survey in China found that 22.6 percent of children reported depressive symptoms and 18.9 percent were experiencing anxiety after a 30-day lockdown, a much shorter time period than American children had to endure. Moreover, children with pre-existing mental health problems may be more vulnerable to the effects of the coronavirus. After 9/11, adolescents' level of distress was closely related to whether or not they had a history of such conditions, and experts predict to see the same pattern because of the coronavirus. Paired with the coronavirus, the struggling economy will add to the mental health repercussions in children. During the Great Recession, a five percent increase in unemployment rates correlated with a 35-50 percent increase in clinically meaningful childhood mental-health problems. Since January, unemployment has increased by about seven to 11 percent, and thus, it can be predicted that a similar mental health blowback will occur.

A recent study collected combined data reported by parents of children who were directly affected by various tragedies such as cancer, the Ebola virus epidemic, influenza, COVID-19, and more all over the world, including Canada, the U.S.A., Spain, and Italy. It concluded that children subjected to social isolation have a higher likelihood of developing acute stress disorder, adjustment disorder, grief, and a four times higher degree of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) compared to those who were not quarantined. Younger children may also be clingier or defiant—as that is how they often display their worries—in ways that caregivers don’t understand. Moreover, high PTSD prevalence was noted in studies about short-lived infectious outbreaks like SARS, and there was a likelihood of the younger population experiencing similar distress and trauma that will be more residual and lasting due to the prolonged coronavirus outbreak. On top of an increase in mental health issues, access to mental health professionals and therapists has decreased because of increased reliance on technology, travel restrictions, and the closure or availability of limited outpatient services in many hospitals. Among students who received mental health services between 2012 and 2015, 57 percent received some and 35 percent received all of them from school. Unfortunately, with schools shutting down, so have many of their mental health services.

Though research has shown the harmful effects of quarantine during childhood, the neural circuit mechanisms behind the negative effects of social isolation are poorly understood. However, in a study on mice, researchers got closer to understanding these circuits. Researchers socially isolated male mice for two weeks after weaning and saw significant results. During social exposure in adulthood, medial prefrontal cortex neurons, which compose a circuit vulnerable to social isolation, failed to activate. The cells in this circuit are supposed to project to the paraventricular thalamus, an area of the brain that relays signals to the brain’s reward circuitry. In this circuit, the failure to activate the medial prefrontal cortex neurons, along with inhibitory input from related neutrons (essentially other neurons also failing to project to the paraventricular thalamus), results in an inactive paraventricular thalamus and thus, sociability deficits. Further research and application of the results to humans could not only result in a stronger understanding of the correlation between juvenile social isolation and sociability deficits but also treatments for psychiatric disorders caused by isolation.

Time will only tell how the younger generation will be affected by a global pandemic in the long term. To be realistic, the comparison of the coronavirus pandemic to previous outbreaks strongly suggests that the youth’s mental health and sociability will be negatively affected. Moreover, as the United States continues to fail to control the coronavirus, mental health repercussions will only get worse, harming the youth of today. As for Stuyvesant students specifically, mental health is already a big issue with the majority of students taking on a stressful workload with AP classes, extracurriculars, and more. Now, with the addition of deteriorating mental health due to social isolation, we must pay more attention to ourselves and take care of ourselves. Hopefully, those who choose to take blended learning will see their mental health improving, and we can soon all return to school and regain our normal lives.