Young people are still suffering from the consequences of the corona pandemic to this day
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Young people are still suffering from the consequences of the corona pandemic to this day


As of: April 25, 2024 6:00 a.m

Thousands of young people are still suffering from the after-effects of the corona pandemic. The school closures in particular have affected them. The result: a massive increase in mental illnesses. By J. Arendt, L. Polanz and A. Pollmeier.

By Janine Arendt, Lutz Polanz and Achim Pollmeier, WDR.

It was the second Corona lockdown that threw them off track. So much so that she almost died. Philina (Name changed by the editors) has been suffering from anorexia for three and a half years since the corona pandemic changed her life. This is the third time she has been in a psychiatric clinic for children and young people. Separated from friends and family.

Philina still remembers the school closings clearly. She said she coped well with it the first time. But when the schools went into lockdown again at Christmas 2020, their mood worsened dramatically. “The worst thing was that I couldn’t see my friends so much and I had to rely on my cell phone to keep in touch.” She withdraws, loses herself in social media, in increasingly intense sports workouts and unrealistic beauty ideals. At some point she became so emaciated that she had to go to the hospital.

Anxiety disorders, depression, eating disorders

School as a place to live: suddenly gone. This not only put a strain on Philina, but also on thousands of other young people. So difficult that many still need help to this day. Nobody can say exactly how many people need help. But just one year after the start of the pandemic, demand for treatment from child and adolescent psychotherapists rose by 60 percent. Health insurance data from DAK show that girls between the ages of 15 and 17 are particularly affected. The number of newly diagnosed eating disorders rose by 51 percent during the pandemic. Anxiety disorders and depression also increased significantly.

Numbers that can clearly be attributed to the school closings, says Julian Schmitz, professor of child and adolescent psychology at the University of Leipzig. He has evaluated numerous national and international studies and sees a clear connection: “The longer school closures lasted, the more the mental health of children and young people was affected.”

Many problems only become apparent with a time delay

With fatal consequences, because the demand for help is still high today. The reason: Many problems only become apparent with a time delay. Due to school closures, children have missed out on important developmental steps, such as language acquisition. Experiences in social behavior are also not easy to catch up on.

Many children and young people are set back in their development, explains Thomas Fischbach, former president of the professional association of pediatricians. Even if this is not the only cause of the increase in mental illnesses among children and young people, there is still a causal connection. According to the newly published trend study on youth in Germany, one in ten young people is currently being treated for mental disorders.

Were school closures necessary?

The effect of school closures was controversial early on. In August 2020, the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control warned against viewing children and young people as drivers of pandemics. But school closures became the means of choice for the federal and state governments to reduce the number of corona infections. The young generation in particular had to pay the price for “the most normal life possible for adults,” says youth psychologist Schmitz in retrospect.

There would have been other options. In Switzerland, adults were required to work from home so that children and young people could go to school. Other countries also almost completely refrained from closing schools.

Swedish epidemiologist: “It wasn’t worth it for us”

Sweden in particular relied on personal responsibility instead of lockdown when fighting the pandemic – especially in schools. Only the older age groups were sent to homeschooling. Schools remained open for younger children during the pandemic.

Compared to Germany, significantly more people in Sweden died in connection with a corona infection – measured in terms of the number of inhabitants at the beginning of the pandemic. During the second and third waves of infections, however, the numbers in Sweden became similar, even though schools remained open.

The Swedish path was shaped by the epidemiologist Anders Tegnell. In the monitor– Interview, he emphasizes that we knew that school closings only had a small influence on the spread of the disease, but would mean a major impact on children: “It wasn’t worth it to us.” In Sweden, too, it can be seen that the pandemic has put a psychological strain on children and young people. However, there were no effects as clear as those in this country.

Children and young people hardly benefit from measures

In Germany, a federal government working group examined the consequences of school closures in 2023 and decided on recommendations for action. The pediatrician Thomas Fischbach was a member of the working group. The recommendations are good, but the implementation leaves a lot to be desired, he says today.

An example: the public health service. The federal government wanted to strengthen this with four billion euros; the money was primarily used for more staff and better pay. But only around 70 of the 377 health authorities nationwide offer child and adolescent psychiatric services, criticizes Matthias Albers, spokesman for the Psychiatry Specialist Committee at the Federal Association of Public Health Services.

Waiting for better times

Another problem is the lack of therapy places. Studies at the University of Leipzig show: Waiting times for outpatient therapists have doubled during the pandemic and have not decreased significantly to date. The government wanted to create more therapy places two years ago. That’s what it said in their coalition agreement. Experts criticize that not enough has changed since then.

The Cologne health department, for example, reports that those affected and their families often have to wait six months for a diagnosis. The longer the waiting time, the higher the risk that the symptoms will become chronic and can only be corrected with great effort. The waiting time for therapy can be extended again to up to a year. The search for clinical treatment places, for example, is so difficult that many families give up. This would particularly affect socially disadvantaged families and immigrants.

The Federal Ministry of Health is currently working on a law to strengthen health care in municipalities. This is intended to align local needs specifically with the patient group of children and young people and ensure a fairer distribution of psychotherapeutic offers, including in rural regions. However, it is still unclear when the law will come and how many additional therapy places will be created. According to experts, rapid implementation is urgently needed in order to finally shorten the long waiting times and thus reduce the risk of long-term psychological damage.

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