Disruptions to school, social and family life could lead to mental health problems in children. File photo by Kevin Dietsch/UPI | License Photo
April 24 (UPI) -- As many as one in five children in China confined to their homes because of the COVID-19 pandemic suffer from depression and anxiety, suggests new data published Friday, and experts say that socioeconomic differences in the United States may only accentuate these issues.
Researchers in Hubei province, China -- where the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, was first identified -- surveyed 1,800 students and found that roughly 20 percent reported either depression or anxiety, or both.
Dr. Margarita Alegria, chief of the Disparities Research Unit at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, said during a conference call with reporters that, in the United States, where there is greater income inequality, these problems could be more pronounced.
"The poverty that we have, and the inequities might make it even harder for people because they may not feel they are being treated equally," she said. "I'm not sure that was the case in China."
Children in minority communities in the United States, Alegria added, may be particularly vulnerable, given some of the economic hardships experienced by these families in general, which may have been made worse by the pandemic.
Nearly 30 million Americans have filed for unemployment since the start of the outbreak across the country, and research in many citiesindicates that minority communities may be most adversely affected, both by COVID-19 and its economic effects.
On Thursday, singer Beyoncé announced a donation of $6 million to the National Alliance in Mental Health, University of California Los Angeles and several local community-based organizations working to improve mental health, particularly those serving "communities of color," she said.
"Communities that were already lacking funds for education, health and housing are now faced with alarming infection rates and fatalities," the singer added in a statement. "And these communities lack access to testing and equitable healthcare."
That's true for mental health treatment as well, according to Alegria.
The COVID-19 pandemic, and social distancing implemented to mitigate it, have had an effect on mental health across the country -- NAMI has reported a 40 percent increase in calls to its helpline since the start of the outbreak in the United States in mid-March.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness estimates that one in three Latin Americans with mental health disorders receives the care they need, lower than the national average of 43 percent. Alegria said it's unlikely that the disparity in care has improved amid the outbreak.
Undocumented individuals are less likely to report mental health problems or seek support services following loss of employment, perhaps fearing deportation, she noted. And there are language problems and cost-of-care issues for documented immigrants and people of color as well.
As a result, children living in families suffering economic hardships as a result of the pandemic may experience changes in family relationships and in quality of parenting, she said, which could impact their own mental well-being. School closings and disruptions to social lives will likely not help, she emphasized.
The JAMA Pediatrics study out of Hubei compared mental health among children in Wuhan, where the outbreak started and lockout measures were most stringent, with another community. The authors found that, in general, students living in Wuhan experienced more depression symptoms and greater anxiety over the future than those living in the other community, where the lockdown was less pronounced.
"COVID-19 has catapulted disparities in health outcomes (in the U.S.) center-stage," Alegria said. As with Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and Hurricane Maria in 2018, people of color are bearing the brunt of school closures, job loss and family stress, she added, "and we need to meet the needs of these communities."