By Marwan Hamed, MPH
Do those COVID-19 lockdowns — which may continue or resume at any time — make you and your kids truly feel locked up? Frustrated, anxious, depressed? Yes, they’re taking a real toll on our mental health, and children are the most vulnerable of all. Here we report important insights from a CET expert, which should grab your attention and help you to cope.
During lockdown restrictions, which vary from place to place, kids are deprived of the fundamentals of childhood — playing with others, running around during recess, live interactive lessons, and excitement and novelty that feed their interest and growth. Of course, lockdown orders are intended for their safety and wellbeing, just as for us adults. But still, lockdowns and other measures taken during the pandemic have taken a special toll on children, with spikes in anxiety and depression — the lows — in kids around the world, causing great concern. Based on a study of 1,028 children in Spain aged 6 to 18 years, around 70% have shown medium to high anxiety levels due to lockdown orders.
With the possibility of lockdown orders being put back in place to combat the threat of the Delta variant, professionals in the mental health field have become increasingly concerned over the long-term wellbeing of both children and adults, as lockdowns may be needed at any time in the near future — and who knows for how long?
Francesco Benedetti, MD is Head of the Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences research group at the San Raffaele Hospital in Milan, and a professor of Psychiatry and of General Psychopathology at the University Vita-Salute San Raffaele. At CET— the nonprofit Center for Environmental Therapeutics — he is a long-time member of our Scientific and Medical Advisory Board, and he was the major clinical expert in the team that authored our treatment manual, Chronotherapeutics for Affective Disorders.
Dr. Benedetti sheds light on how the psychological effects observed in children may not be short-term and for some could develop into long-term struggles. The negative effects can last into adulthood. They will not end with the pandemic. We are talking about potential lifetime repercussions:
“In some cases, anxious reactions are expected to vanish when life returns to its normal course. But unfortunately, the traumatic events experienced in early ages may trigger psychiatric disorders. At the age when many important relationships develop for the first time, being forcibly separated from their peers, facing a major social-life disruption, being forced to live in a confined environment — all these factors should be considered a major trauma.”
Dr. Benedetti goes on to state, “Given my personal history of psychiatric research, I also have to point to disregarded biological effects of home seclusion: circadian (sleep-wake cycle) rhythm disruption via reducing the exposure to synchronizers (daylight and darkness, plus physical exercise in the open air), and also exposure to increased light pollution from computer monitors and other electronic devices, all together play[ing] a major role in the reported increase of insomnia and use of tranquilizers. We know that disrupting internal timing has a major effect in triggering mood disorders.”
Under lockdown orders, children are at the most need for a solid, stable parental presence at home, but because the pandemic came as a shock to everyone, many parents were unprepared to give primary attention to the mental health needs of their children — not to mention their own.
Dr. Benedetti warns of the effects of antidepressants on children
With more and more cases of anxiety and the lows being reported in children over the course of the pandemic, some families have turned to antidepressants for a solution, but these may be harmful practices for children. Dr. Benedetti warns us that “a lot of studies show that commonly prescribed psychotropic drugs can have unpredictable effects on children and adolescents, followed by paradoxical worsening of the most dangerous psychopathological symptoms. These drugs have been thoroughly tested for safety in adults, but their effects on the developing brain are different. Commonly prescribed antidepressants can worsen suicidal ideation and trigger self-harming and suicide attempts. The possible efficacy of psychotherapy should always be considered first, and anyway, psychotherapy should always be combined with drugs, even when they are necessary.”
Indeed, prescription medications will sometimes be necessary for children and teenagers. Dr. Benedetti suggests that the medicine should be used only as prescribed, and side effects carefully monitored — yet another challenge for parents at an already-stressful time. “Some patients develop tolerance to the effects of drugs, which lose efficacy over time, leading to the need of increasing dosage to obtain the same effects. This is particularly evident for the benzodiazepine tranquilizers. Population research completed soon before the Covid pandemic showed that a substantial proportion of children and adolescents continued benzodiazepine treatment for six months or longer, despite recommendations calling for short-term treatment. There is no doubt that initiating these treatments should be a decision carefully weighed against other options.”
Try Dr. Benedetti’s approach
Now, what about the many children that don’t need medications, but are still struggling with feelings of anxiety and the lows? Thankfully there are natural treatment options for them — such as light and body clock therapy. The methods emphasized on CET.org match well with Dr. Benedetti’s recommendations. As he told an interviewer on RT.com, “[We need], as soon as possible, to exploit the natural healing power of our body. Children have to use any possible occasion to stay out in the light, play and exercise their muscles, socialize with their friends. Problems in the rhythms of sleep and activities can be managed with chronotherapeutic interventions — light therapy in the morning, with physical exercise; darkness and rest in the evening — and avoiding pollution by the blue components of the light spectrum coming out from computer monitors and other electronic devices, which can disrupt sleep and circadian rhythms.”
Natural treatment options and a strong support system at home can really improve mental health for many children and teenagers. As Dr. Benedetti observes, “Many children and adolescents now face anxious reactions when coming out from their homes. This should not immediately be diagnosed as a mental disturbance and medicated. Facing anxiety, and letting it flood — together with the support of a loved one who can encourage without judging — are expected to be followed by habituation, and lead to restoring the normal rhythms of life in the large majority of cases.”
Dr. Benedetti’s views on the pandemic
“I sometimes read in newspapers people complaining against the ‘selfish’ or ‘irresponsible’ behavior of young people — who actually, in my view, just tried to preserve their social identity and their developing personality in these difficult times. My view is the opposite: Children and adolescents gave a great example of discipline, unselfishness, even self-denial in favor of the community of the adults, which did not always treat them well. A great example of the moral sense is deeply rooted in young people, against all odds.”
So what’s the takeaway?
If your child is struggling to cope during these tough times, like so many people of all ages are, you can try combining three constructive approaches, as we have outlined here:
- speak with a licensed a mental health professional
- adopt new home routines to better structure the day and night, and
- use natural treatment options. CET has selected some of the best therapeutic options to enhance the indoor environment, as you can explore on our site and online shop.
As always, we invite you to share your thoughts and perspectives. Feel free to contact us. May we all get through this pandemic together in peace and health.
Marwan Hamed is a freelance writer for CET.