Jun 30, 2020
What does existing research tell us about the possible impact of the pandemic on children and young people's mental health? Dr Lucy Maddox speaks with Dr Maria Loades about Maria and colleagues' recent rapid review of the literature on isolation and mental health, and what CBT principles suggest can be helpful to head off problems, in particular with loneliness during the pandemic.
Show Notes and Transcript
Maria recommended lots of helpful resources on loneliness and social isolation which we've listed here:
Together: Loneliness, Health And What Happens when we find Connection – Vivek Murthy https://www.amazon.co.uk/Together-Loneliness-Health-Happens-Connection/dp/1788162773
Overcoming social anxiety and shyness https://www.amazon.co.uk/Overcoming-Social-Anxiety-Shyness-Gillian/dp/1849010005
Overcoming your children’s social anxiety and shyness https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1845290879/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_U_6p13EbZ0ER2XD
How to cope with loneliness during coronavirus – https://www.verywellmind.com/how-to-cope-with-loneliness-during-coronavirus-4799661
TEDx talk by Will Wright ‘Loneliness is literally killing us’ - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ruh6rN5UrME&feature=youtu.be
Loneliness and isolation in teenagers – a parent’s guide https://www.bupa.co.uk/newsroom/ourviews/2019/05/teenager-loneliness
As always if you want more information on BABCP check out www.babcp.com
If you want to find a CBT accredited therapist check the register of BABCP accredited therapists https://www.cbtregisteruk.com/
The rapid review we talked about is here: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7267797/
That podcast episode with Shirley Reynolds on teenagers doing more of what matters to them is here: https://letstalkaboutcbt.libsyn.com/helping-teenagers-do-more-of-what-matters-to-them
Lucy: Hi and welcome to Let’s Talk About CBT with me, Dr Lucy Maddox. In this episode brought to you by the British Association for Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapies, we think about the possible effects of quarantine on children and young people’s mental health. I’ll let my guest for today introduce herself.
Maria: My name is Dr Maria Loades and I’m a clinical psychologist and I work at the University of Bath as a lecturer on the doctorate and clinical psychology programme.
Lucy: Maria and her colleagues have been especially interested in the effects of the pandemic on children and young people. She co-authored a rapid review of evidence to try to understand what this effect is likely to be.
Maria: What we wanted to do was to look at two things. One is the studies that have been done that have looked at social isolation in a pandemic context in children and young people and how that’s impacted on their mental health. Secondly, we were also interested in thinking, okay, if these measures mean that young people experience this increase in loneliness, what do we know about how loneliness might be related to mental health for children and young people.
Lucy: So obviously there’s not loads of pandemics to study, but you’re trying to work out from what’s been done before, how does loneliness impact on mental health problems for children and young people? You turned the review around really quickly didn’t you, because normally it takes months to do something like this.
Maria: Yes, we really felt like it was particularly important to pull this together as quickly as we could to inform policy and practice going forward.
Lucy: And what did you find?
Maria: As we expected, there isn’t much known about the impact of pandemics specifically. There was just one study that looked at mental health in children and young people in a pandemic context and it did find that there was significantly increased rates of mental health problems for those who had experienced disease containment measures like quarantine or social isolation. And the study focused on trauma symptoms and they found really much higher rates of trauma symptoms amongst those young people who had experienced those disease containment measures. But that is only one study.
More broadly though, there were over 60 studies that looked at loneliness and mental health. And we found that there is good evidence that loneliness increases the chances of developing mental health problems, both anxiety and depression, up to nine years later.
So there’s not only a loneliness and depression and anxiety linked when we measured them at the same point in time, but there’s good evidence that being lonely now will mean an increase in risk of mental health problems at a later date.
Lucy: Maria thought one study was particularly interesting. It looked at duration of loneliness compared to intensity of loneliness.
Maria: Now what we mean by that is how long the loneliness is going on for, as compared to how strong the loneliness is. And what this study found, and it was a big study, is that actually the longer we’re lonely for, the more closely linked that is with mental health problems than how strong the loneliness is.
Lucy: What are some things that might be helpful to head off these problems?
Maria: We know that loneliness is that feeling we get when our social connections are not what we would want them to be. In the current context, of course, socially connecting in the normal ways, like at school or at college, for young people, is curtailed. But we can still connect in other ways.
Lucy: Maria emphasised how important connecting for play dates over video calls can be, as well as meeting up for play now lockdown is easing, and using more old school ways of communicating as well, like sending friends cards or letters.
Maria: The other thing we can do is more broadly to think about how we promote activities amongst young people that support wellbeing in every which way we can. As well as making sure we’re providing a listening ear for young people and being open to hearing what they might be worried about or what they might be feeling sad about and problem solving that where we can. Actually giving them permission, this is a really unusual circumstance and it’s okay and it’s normal for it not to feel very good.
Lucy: Some things that we know promote wellbeing include regular exercise, good quality sleep, healthy eating and time spent on activities that young people enjoy and feel proud of.
Maria: As one goes for a walk you see rainbows in the windows and my little one looks and points and knows that those rainbows mean that there are other children out there. And I think that’s incredibly helpful in terms of feeling a sense of community, connectedness, which also helps to overcome that loneliness.
Lucy: So although there may be an increased risk of mental health problems as a result of the pandemic, there’s also lots and lots that we can do that would be protective.
Maria: Definitely. I think it’s really important too that we make a distinction between young people who might be feeling lonely now and during this context, but who were pretty well socially connected beforehand. And of course, other young people who might have been lonely beforehand and this has maybe made things worse, or that their loneliness is ongoing at this stage.
For those young people who have maybe been feeling lonely for a much longer time, we might need to do something more individualised and more specific in terms of helping them to think about how they can make social connections going forward, as we resume life to some degree.
Lucy: I asked Maria whether she thought that as we are able to see people more, there might also be some anxiety around socialising.
Maria: You know, the reality is, we haven’t been practicing socialising nearly as much as we’d normally do. So we might well feel rusty and we might well even be worried about connecting socially with each other again. Add into that, of course we’ve had a lot of messages in recent weeks about the risk of interacting with each other because of the risk of infection. And so I think anxiety about getting physically close to each other and interacting with each other is going to be really natural in weeks going forward.
And I think again, the CBT principles can really help us to deal with those social anxieties too. So the first principle that I think is really important to remember is: The first step to tackling fear is facing it.
Lucy: CBT principles suggest breaking down a scary situation into steps and gradually building the confidence to face the fear by conquering one step at a time. So starting with a text message to a friend and working up to meeting face-to-face, for example.
Another tip to help with social anxiety is trying not to focus on how we’re coming across to someone but to focus on what someone is saying rather than getting caught up in thoughts about what they think about us. Thinking about thoughts, just as thoughts rather than facts is one thing that can help with this too, both for children and adults.
Maria: There’s certain developmental reasons why children and young people may be struggling particularly and those are about the key importance of play and of social interaction to development at those ages. But actually this is something that everybody is experiencing.
I do think the majority of children and young people, and adults more generally, will have a few wobbles, but will manage and will bounce back as we go forward. But for some, I think it will be a little more difficult and they’ll need to maybe engage in a bit of self-help using some of these CBT principles or indeed actually to go on and get some more professional help.
Lucy: Maria’s review has implications for school policy.
Maria: What we’re really encouraging, both schools but also policymakers to support is that as schools return and resume their normal activities, that they focus on allowing children and young people to reconnect rather than emphasising catching up academically. We know, again, from lots of studies and reviews that have been done that having mental health problems gets in the way of academic attainment.
We’ve got a strong rationale really for arguing, okay, let’s make sure now that we try and overcome loneliness rather than prioritising catching up with school work in the short-term because actually in the longer term that’s going to be beneficial to school work as well as to wellbeing more generally.
Lucy: I was curious to know if Maria thought any children and young people might actually have benefitted from lockdown. I see children and young people in my clinical practice and I’ve seen a real mixed bag of responses.
Maria: I do think that there are some young people who have actually found lockdown to be a real relief, particularly young people who struggled more with school and who struggled more with social interactions. Again, they’re young people who might struggle particularly with the return to school as things get restarted again.
Lucy: Another group Maria highlighted were children and young people with particular transition points at this time.
Maria: People who, for example, had exams cancelled. Whilst in the short-term that might be a real relief not to have to study and not to have to face GCSEs or A-Levels for instance, I think again, going forward, then there’s worries for those young people about what did that mean for them and how do they pick up from where they left off.
Lucy: Super hard isn’t it, because there’s such a range of experiences that will be going on in people’s homes as well. I suppose one thing that has been really on my mind is children and young people who are from backgrounds where they will be disadvantaged by being at home, or perhaps even in danger for one reason or another.
Maria: I think that’s a real problem and I do a lot of work with colleagues in South Africa, for whom lots of what we’ve been talking about as helpful strategies just don’t apply. Most children and young people don’t have access to the internet and can’t continue to keep in touch by virtual play dates, for instance. So what do you do for those kind of populations who are disadvantaged in terms of being able to remain in digital contact with one another. It’s really tricky.
I think we should all be concerned about those young people for whom home isn’t a safe place. And that’s a small minority of children, but a really big concern.
Schools often have a function of being able to do that check-in and that noticing of when children aren’t doing okay and to pick up on that and we haven’t had the ability to do that. So I think the needs of those children are going to be really important to thoroughly meet as we resume education contact and so forth.
Lucy: Maria’s overall message was one of realistic optimism.
Maria: I think parents are understandably fearful about what this is going to mean for the wellbeing of their children going forward and, what’s that phrase? Realistic optimism. I do think the vast majority are going to bounce back and a few wobbles, a bit of encouragement, a bit of a push sometimes, but they’ll manage it. And the few who get a little more stuck, we do have things that we can offer to help.
Lucy: That’s all for now. I hope you enjoyed this episode and found it useful. If you’d like to listen to more on children and young people, there’s another episode with Shirley Reynolds, talking about how to help young people do more of what matters to them at this time. There’s also loads in the back catalogue about different types of CBT and different problems it can help with. For example, compassion focused therapy or CBT for hoarding disorder.
As ever, if you have ideas for new topics, feel free to get in touch with me at lucy.maddox@BABCP.com. Take care for now.
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