Global Youth Depression and Anxiety Doubled During Pandemic

Diana Swift

August 10, 2021

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

The COVID-19 pandemic doubled international rates of child and adolescent psychological disorders, according to results of a meta-analysis.

In the first year of the pandemic, an estimated one in four youth across various regions of the globe experienced clinically elevated depression symptoms, while one in five experienced clinically elevated anxiety symptoms. These pooled estimates, which increased over time, are double prepandemic estimates, according to Nicole Racine, PhD, RPsych, a clinical psychologist at the University of Calgary (Alta.) and colleagues.

Their meta-analysis of 29 studies, comprising 80,879 young people worldwide aged 18 years or less, found pooled prevalence estimates of clinically elevated youth depression and anxiety of 25.2% (95% confidence interval, 21.2%-29.7%) and 20.5% (95% CI, 17.2%-24.4%), respectively.

"The prevalence of depression and anxiety symptoms during COVID-19 [has] doubled, compared with prepandemic estimates, and moderator analyses revealed that prevalence rates were higher when collected later in the pandemic, in older adolescents, and in girls," the researchers write online in JAMA Pediatrics.

Prepandemic estimates of clinically significant generalized anxiety and depressive symptoms in large youth cohorts were approximately 11.6% and 12.9%, respectively, the authors say.

The increases revealed in these international findings have implications for targeted mental health resource planning.

"One difficulty in the literature is that there are large discrepancies on the prevalence of child depression and anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic, with published rates between 2% and 68%," corresponding author Sheri Madigan, PhD, RPsych, of the University of Calgary department of psychology, said in an interview. "By conducting a synthesis of the 29 studies on over 80,000 children, we were able to determine that, on average across these studies, 25% of youth are experiencing depression and 20% are experiencing anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic."

The Cohort

The mean age in the combined global cohort was 13 years (range 4.1-17.6 ), and the mean proportion of females was 52.7% (standard deviation) 12.3%). The findings were based on international data published from Jan. 1, 2020, to Feb. 16, 2021, in studies conducted in the Middle East (n = 1), Europe (n = 4), South America (n = 2), North America (n = 6), and East Asia (n = 16). Notably absent were data from most of Latin America and the Middle East, Africa, South East Asia, and the Pacific Islands.

As the year progressed, the prevalence of depressive symptoms rose (b = .26; 95% CI, .06-46) with the number of months elapsed. Prevalence rates also rose as both age (b = 0.08, 95% CI, 0.01-0.15), and the percentage of females in samples increased (b = .03; 95% CI, 0.01-0.05).

The authors surmise that this cumulative worsening might be because of prolonged social isolation, family financial difficulties, missed milestones, and school disruptions, which are compounded over time. A second possibility is that studies conducted in the earlier months of the pandemic were more likely to be conducted in East Asia, where the self-reported prevalence of mental health symptoms tends to be lower.

The findings highlight an urgent need for intervention and recovery efforts and also indicate the need to consider individual differences when determining targets for intervention, including age, sex, and exposure to COVID-19 stressors), they add.

Even more concerning, recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest that the pandemic spurred an increase in suspected suicide attempts by teenage girls. In the United Kingdom, acute mental health presentations to emergency care tripled over 2019 at one pediatric facility during the pandemic.

The authors attribute the toll on the psychological well-being of the world's young people to pandemic-mandated restrictions. Those entailed loss of peer interactions, social isolation, and reduced contact with support figures such as teachers, and, "In addition, schools are often a primary location for receiving psychological services, with 80% of children relying on school-based services to address their mental health needs." For many children, these services were rendered unavailable owing to school closures, Madigan and associates write.

In the context of clinical practice, doctors play a critical role. "With school closures, the physician's office may be the only mental health checkpoint for youth," Madigan said "So I recommend that family physicians screen for, and/or ask children and youth, about their mental health."

On the home front, emerging research suggests that a predictable home environment can protect children's mental well-being, with less depression and fewer behavioral problems observed in families adhering to regular routines during COVID-19. "Thus, a tangible solution to help mitigate the adverse effects of COVID-19 on youth is working with children and families to implement consistent and predictable routines around schoolwork, sleep, screen use, and physical activity," the authors write.

They also point to the need for research on the long-term effects of the pandemic on mental health, including studies in order to "augment understanding of the implications of this crisis on the mental health trajectories of today's children and youth."

In an accompanying editorial, Tami D. Benton, MD, psychiatrist-in-chief at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and colleagues, who were not involved in the meta-analysis, note certain limitations to the study. First, the included studies are based on self- or parent-reported symptoms. Second, the studies, more than half of which (55.2%) were done in China, may not be generalizable to all regions of the world, where 90% of children live in low- or middle-income countries.

Still, they write, "The increased mental health needs identified in the meta-analysis call for immediate action for every country. Our responses must consider the range of child mental health infrastructures available, which vary across countries, with some having well-developed and coordinated mental health services, while others have informal, limited, underfunded, or fragmented systems of care."

Empirically supported and culturally appropriate intervention strategies for children and families according to countries and communities will be crucial, they stress.

"This meta-analysis provides the most complete evidence to date on the toll the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on child and adolescent mental health," said Katie A. McLaughlin, PhD, a professor of psychology at Harvard University in Boston, who was not involved in the study. "The results confirm the substantial increases in symptoms of youth depression and anxiety that many clinicians and researchers have observed during the pandemic and highlight the critical need for greater investments in mental health services for children and adolescents."

This study received no specific funding other than research support to the investigators from nonprivate entities. The authors disclosed no relevant conflicts of interest. Benton and associates and McLaughlin declared no competing interests.

This story originally appeared on, part of the Medscape Professional Network.


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