Most Kids Bounce Back After Disasters. Researchers Want To Know If COVID Will Be Different

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Researcher Katie McLaughlin. (Courtesy Katie McLaughlin)
Researcher Katie McLaughlin. (Courtesy Katie McLaughlin)

This story is part of our series "Pandemic Generation" about how the mental health of children has been impacted by the pandemic. You can find the complete series here.

When Harvard psychology professor Katie McLaughlin began studying kids' and families' mental health a few years ago, she had no idea her work would become instrumental in a pandemic.

Because McLaughlin was already following more than 200 families — and continued to follow them after COVID hit — her work has provided some clues about how the pandemic is affecting the emotional health of children.

What she found was a doubling of the rates of depression and anxiety and an almost three-fold increase in behavioral problems in children between April and December of last year. The kids in her study are between 7 and 15 years old.

McLaughlin talked with WBUR about her research on this and other disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina. We wanted to know whether there are any lessons that might help schools, children and families.

Below are interview highlights, lightly edited for clarity.

Interview Highlights

McLaughlin's research from early in the pandemic shows a doubling — and in some cases a tripling — of mental health issues among children:

"They are pretty dramatic [results]. What I would say is that we have learned a lot about how these types of community-wide disruptions impact children and families and their mental health based on prior events like natural disasters — Hurricane Katrina for example, and 9/11.

What we tend to find in research on those prior types of events is that children who are exposed to these types of community-wide stressors experience increases in mental health problems. Not all children, but we see meaningful increases from baseline."

On the scale of the pandemic and the level of adversity children experienced, and differences in mental health outcomes for children based on the adversity they experienced: 

"One of the primary findings that has come from this work is that by far, the strongest predictor of children experiencing this increase in mental health problems over time was the degree of exposure they had to pandemic-related stressors. Interestingly, we saw that coupling between experiencing stressors and developing increases in mental health problems was stronger for adolescents. So, in other words, adolescents seem to be more sensitive to the effects of these pandemic-related stressors than younger kids."

On the lessons to be learned from research on other disasters, such as Hurricane Katrina and 9/11, about which children are most resilient, and how long mental health impacts persist for most kids: 

"The good news, first, is that across most studies what we see is that about half of kids exhibit resilience and sometimes more, where mental health and functioning stays fairly good — even despite experiencing significant adversity. The remaining half of kids, about half of them — so about 25% of all kids --  will experience increases in symptoms and mental health problems like anxiety or depression, initially. But they recover, typically on their own within about a year.

It's the 25% or 30% of kids that we're most concerned about after natural disasters and other types of similar stressful events. Those kids develop new symptoms of mental health problems, and they remain elevated over time. And in that group, we often see that those symptoms can stay elevated for quite some time. So in the studies we did of children after Hurricane Katrina, we saw that there was a fairly sizable group of kids who were still experiencing fairly meaningful increases in mental health problems two to three years later."

How to help children recover: 

"One of the things that we've been focused on in our research is trying to identify factors that promote resilience, things that any family might have access to. So, of course we can talk about things like mental health treatment and interventions. But during the pandemic, most families didn't have access to those types of interventions, or they looked very different than they might have looked otherwise. So we were focused on simple factors that were low cost and easily accessible.

For example, we found that kids who were getting more routine exercise — some type of physical activity on more days of the week — were less likely to develop mental health problems. Also children who had a structured routine, those children were less likely to develop behavior problems. We also found that we all have spent more time on screens and we were interested in passive use of screens [such as scrolling and watching videos]. What we found is that children who engaged in more of that passive use were more likely to develop mental health problems. "

What to expect long-term for children's mental health after the pandemic: 

"In many ways it's the million dollar question that we are all wondering about. One of the challenges with this pandemic is that the scope is so much larger than other disasters. This has affected all of us. The sheer number of of children who may be experiencing ongoing difficulties is likely to be really high, even if the proportion is similar to what we've seen in other types of events. That raises a lot of challenges for the mental health field in terms of how we meet the needs of these children and families as we begin to transition out of this most acute phase of the pandemic."

This project is funded in part by a grant from the NIHCM Foundation.

This segment aired on June 23, 2021.


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Deborah Becker Host/Reporter
Deborah Becker is a senior correspondent and host at WBUR. Her reporting focuses on mental health, criminal justice and education.



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