COVID can triple risk of mental health in children

A nationwide analysis in the United States suggests contracting COVID-19 can nearly triple children’s risk of new mental health problems.

The findings, published in the journal Psychiatric Services, were led by Mir Ali, a health economist at the US Department of Health and Human Services, who analysed health claims data from more than 3.3 million children 17 and younger in all 50 states and Washington, D.C., who had received a COVID-19 test.

These data were part of US Open Source Claims, a health insurance claims database.

None of the children or adolescents had been diagnosed with a mental health disorder or had needed mental health services in the year before they were tested for the coronavirus. But more than 7 percent of those who tested positive for COVID-19 had a new mental health diagnosis, on average within 30 days.

By contrast, only 3.4 percent of children whose tests were negative had new mental health issues. Those who did experience problems experienced them an average of four months later.

After adjusting for other factors like genetics, researchers found contracting COVID-19 nearly tripled children’s risk of mental health problems. More than a third of the affected children subsequently were diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder; 2 in 5 had an anxiety disorder, and another 1 in 5 had a trauma or stress disorder.

Moreover, the older the child, the more having COVID-19 increased their mental health risks. Compared to children under 5 who tested positive for the virus, infected children ages 6-11 had a fivefold higher risk and adolescents ages 12-17 had a sevenfold increase in risk of new and recurring mental health diagnoses.

“The high rate of new onset of mental health conditions among youths with no recent mental health history suggests the need for emotional and behavioural health supports, such as screening, assessment, and treatment,” Mir and his colleagues concluded.

While prior research has found that long-COVID can have cognitive effects on adults, Mir noted that the current study did not look at what could be driving COVID-related mental health problems in children infected with the virus.

It’s not clear, for example, whether the virus itself causes neurological problems, or if children develop stress and trauma from being diagnosed with an illness known to be dangerous or fatal.

The study also did not distinguish between children who had more severe or less severe cases of the illness. Mir cautioned that because the study was based on health insurance data, it may underestimate the mental health effects of the pandemic for children who don’t have health insurance.

“Prolonged loneliness and social isolation have been associated with future mental health problems up to nine years later, which suggests that children and adolescents would be at risk for mental health conditions long after the social restrictions for the pandemic have ended,” Mir and his colleagues noted in a separate briefing on the study.