It seems like people are becoming polarized over COVID-19 solutions. At times, it feels difficult to have nuanced discussions about the various measures being employed to combat the virus. This is really too bad. We are all in this pandemic together. This is not and will never be a black and white situation. COVID-19 is a real disease that poses significant risk to some people, yet any societal or individual response carries with it potentially serious repercussions. Every action has a reaction and these reactions should be included in any risk calculations.
That said, I want to share some observations about the COVID-19 lockdown, outside of the disease itself.
Parents are growing increasingly concerned about their children’s mental health. In a recent NPR story, parents report nightmares, tantrums, and regressions are just some of the worrisome behaviors their children are exhibiting in the wake of school closures and weeks of stay-at-home orders.
Here’s what I’ve noticed with my own children:
- In general, my twin 3-year-olds are fine. They miss their school friends, but seem to enjoy the extra time with Mom and Dad. Of late, however, my son constantly brings up “the virus.” If we go for a walk, we are always watching for “the virus.” When he plays by himself, I hear him run from or fight “the virus.” While my wife and I have tried to downplay the disease, it’s obvious others have given him more details or he has overhead discussions about “the virus.” It is difficult to know how much the COVID-19 fear and isolation will impact young kids as they grow up.
- In many ways, my 6-year-old seems to be blossoming. She is a getting a lot of one-on-one time with Mom and we have learned a lot about her learning style. She appears to be enjoying the extra time with her siblings, especially her older sister. The only thing I have noticed is an increase in nightmares. She now needs to sleep with the lights on and often comes into our bedroom during the night.
- My 9-year-old is having the hardest time adjusting. Fourth grade is a social age. She definitely misses her friends. At times, she seems lethargic and depressed, not her usual state. She says she often wakes up hoping I will be rushing her to get ready for school. If there is no school in the fall, I am worried.
It seems too that children’s reactions mirror those of their parents. My daughter had a play date scheduled with one of her best friends. On the ride to our home, she became very anxious about being out of her house and we had to bring her home. The child’s mother is extremely worried about COVID-19. On Zoom calls, she is not her usual happy self. Her stress level is palpable.
It is sad that kids are contending with these emotional issues when the virus poses little physical risk to them. While the long term mental health impact of COVID-19 is yet unknown, any traumatic childhood experience can have far reaching effects into adulthood. As such, I encourage everyone to be mindful of their pandemic responses when around children.
But it’s not just kids who are suffering. Across the country, suicide and crisis hotlines are reporting record call volumes. Disaster Distress Helpline, a federal crisis hotline that provides counseling and support to emotionally distressed people during times of natural and human-caused disasters, saw a 338% increase in call volume compared with February and an 891% year over year increase of calls. Pandemic-related stress is also prompting a spike in alcohol and drug use, according to a national survey, with Americans reporting a 55% rise in alcohol consumption and a 36% increase in drug use.
The Internet is currently flooded with memes, like the one the below, about prolific drinking during the pandemic.
As funny as the jokes can be, experts have already started to voice concerns about the secondary effects of COVID-19, including increased rates of addiction, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and suicide. A new study suggests fear, isolation, and unemployment stemming from the virus could result in 75,000 “deaths of despair” years after the worst of the pandemic is over. Deaths of despair include suicide and those related to drug or alcohol abuse. The study, released by Well Being Trust and the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies in Family Medicine and Primary Care, estimated the number of deaths based on the rate of economic recovery, with 75,000 “the most likely” out of a range of approximately 27,000 to 154,000 between the years 2020 and 2029.
I am not a fan of fear mongering, but it is undeniable unemployment and isolation will adversely impact society long after this immediate crisis has passed. That’s why I believe policies intended to reduce the spread of the disease need to factor in the emotional and mental health risks accompanying them. I say this not to be negative, but rather to underscore the importance of understanding the full implications of government-wide mandates.
As I’ve shared in previous blogs, I favor Sweden’s approach to managing the COVID-19 outbreak, which relies heavily on voluntary cooperation with social distancing protocols rather than state imposed restrictions. Here in the U.S., I’m confident that those most at risk from the virus will take the necessary precautions to protect their health without the need for broad compulsory measures that threaten the well-being of low risk individuals and society as a whole.
Stay safe, stay strong!