Loneliness and social isolation during the pandemic may have long-term mental health impacts on young people, according to a new meta-analysis from the University of Bath. The experts report that a high rate of children and adolescents will likely experience depression and anxiety years after social restrictions are lifted.
The research was focused on 60 published studies that examined the effects of isolation and loneliness in young people between the ages of four and 21.
The study revealed that children and teenagers who feel lonely or isolated are three times more likely to develop depression in the future. The findings also suggest that the depressive symptoms associated with loneliness can persist for nine years or longer.
Overall, the studies indicate that there is a strong correlation between loneliness and an increased risk of mental health issues among young people.
The study authors said the findings should serve as a warning to policymakers to anticipate a rise in demand for mental health services among children and teens in the years to come, both in the UK and around the world.
Study lead author Dr. Maria Loades is a clinical psychologist at the University of Bath.
“From our analysis, it is clear there are strong associations between loneliness and depression in young people, both in the immediate and the longer-term,” said Dr. Loades.
“We know this effect can sometimes be lagged, meaning it can take up to 10 years to really understand the scale of the mental health impact the covid-19 crisis has created.”
Dr. Loades said the research could also have important implications for how teachers and policymakers manage the phased reopening of schools, scheduled to begin this week in the UK.
“There is evidence that it’s the duration of loneliness as opposed to the intensity which seems to have the biggest impact on depression rates in young people.”
“This means that returning to some degree of normality as soon as possible is of course important. However, how this process is managed matters when it comes to shaping young people’s feelings and experiences about this period.”
“For our youngest and their return to school this week, we need to prioritize the importance of play in helping them to reconnect with friends and adjust following this intense period of isolation.”
The study is published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.