Health and Healthcare Systems

COVID-19 is hurting children's mental health. Here are 3 ways we can help

Amparo Aguilera puts a protective face mask on her grandchild Kilian, 6, after restrictions were partially lifted for children, during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Igualada, Spain April 26, 2020. REUTERS/Nacho Doce - RC2GCG90NK6P

Amparo Aguilera puts a protective face mask on her grandchild Kilian in Igualada, Spain April 26, 2020 Image: REUTERS/Nacho Doce - RC2GCG90NK6P

Henrietta H. Fore
Director Emeritus, Chief Executives for Corporate Purpose (CECP)
Zeinab Hijazi
Mental Health & Psychosocial Support Specialist, UNICEF
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  • Some 99% of the world’s children are living with restrictions on movement because of COVID-19.
  • 60% live in countries under full or partial coronavirus lockdowns
  • 1.5 billion children are out school.

Children thrive when they are safe and protected, when family and community connections are stable and nurturing, and when their basic needs are met.

The coronavirus pandemic and the unprecedented measures to contain its spread are disrupting nearly every aspect of children’s lives: their health, development, learning, behaviour, their families’ economic security and their protection from violence and abuse.

And their mental health.

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Today, 99% of the world’s children are living under some form of pandemic-related limit on movement; 60% live in countries under full or partial lockdowns and 1.5 billion children are out school. This is especially tragic for the poorest children, who rely on school feeding programmes for their only consistent daily meal.

Younger children are at great risk, as high levels of stress and isolation can affect brain development, sometimes with irreparable long-term consequences.

Many children and young people are also contending with family separations, caring for sick relatives and even the death of loved ones.

Girls are particularly affected, with containment measures resulting in increased gender-based violence, child pregnancy and even child marriage. All this while taking on increased responsibility for household chores and caring for relatives.

Migrant and displaced children and families may not be reached with vital information in a language they understand, fueling anxiety.

Those already living through humanitarian disasters like conflicts are at an even greater risk — not only from COVID-19, but as systems collapse around them and any sense of normalcy and security is shattered.


And as the world enters what looks to be a deep and long-lasing recession, as jobs are lost and families lose precious sources of income, children’s sense of security, safety and normalcy will be challenged like never before.

In the early stages of the pandemic, UNICEF joined our partner agencies to survey 1,700 children, parents, teachers and caregivers in 104 countries on how the pandemic was affecting their lives — particularly their mental health and psychosocial wellbeing.

Children told us that they’re worried about being isolated from family and friends and catching and even dying from the virus.

Parents told us that they’re confused about how to address their children’s fears, or how to explain extreme containment measures, like social distancing.

Based on the survey, UNICEF joined a number of our partner agencies and organizations to develop My Hero is You — a storybook for children that helps them better understand COVID-19 and how they can protect themselves.

But the survey also reminded us that, as a global community, we have a responsibility to children’s health and wellbeing — including their mental health and psychosocial wellbeing — and to support parents and caregivers as they, in turn, support children and young people.

We must act now to gather and mobilize public and private resources to support the mental health and psychosocial wellbeing of the world’s most vulnerable children and young people at this extraordinary time.

Here are three ways in which we can, collectively protect children, adolescents and caregivers from the potentially devastating psychological impact of this pandemic.

1. Immediate public and private investments in mental health and psychosocial services and programmes for children and young people, throughout their childhoods — especially in low-resource settings.

2. Community-based policies, programming and services that are adapted to the specific needs of children and young people under pandemics like COVID-19. UNICEF is now working with our partners to adapt our programming and integrating mental health and psychosocial support in a number of ways — from distance-learning for children who are out of school, to supporting the mental health of frontline workers, to proactively reaching out to children who exhibit the signs of pre-existing mental health conditions, to using technology to directly reach those children who need support and counselling. With offices across 192 countries, in a variety of contexts, UNICEF stands ready to support governments and authorities as they design and implement these measures.

3. Including the needs of children and young people in any discussion or implementation of lockdowns or containment measures. Across our work, we must mobilize children and adolescents directly, listen to their needs, and shape programmes and services around these needs. As young people tell us: “Nothing for us without us.”

The stakes could not be higher. If not adequately or appropriately addressed, the mental health consequences for a generation of children and young people could far surpass the immediate health and economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, leaving long-term social and economic consequences in its wake.

We call on governments, businesses, donors, and leaders to urgently help us by lending their resources, creativity, innovation and commitment to supporting this effort, as we build back better, shape a healthier and safer world for every child and young person, and support their mental health and wellbeing every step of the way.

For more information, please contact Dr. Zeinab Hijazi, Mental Health & Psychosocial Support Specialist,

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