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Pandemic-induced mental impact on kids likely to affect long term learning abilities

Without the right support, families that experienced higher stress levels throughout the COVID-19 pandemic will likely suffer long-term effects, a new study finds, adding that it could impact children’s learning abilities.

When the COVID-19 pandemic first broke out in 2020, it completely changed the way people lead their lives. The researchers, from New York University in Abu Dhabi (NYUAD), University of California Davis and Hashemite University in Jordan as well as Global TIES for Children (an NYUAD-based research center), published a study which involved conducting hair cortisol tests to measure stress levels.

They studied 52 predominantly lower income families from Jordan and Syria, by analyzing samples from cortisol tests of mothers and children which were taken for a previous study in 2019, to explore how stress affected family functioning and mental health over the first nine months of the pandemic.

They compared these cortisol tests to new ones that were conducted in June 2020 and found that mothers reported less adaptive coping mechanisms and more negative changes to family life.

They also found raised levels of family adversity and predicted worse mental health in children and mothers by December 2020, because of the pandemic.

Some of these negative changes included the prevalence of more behavioral problems and poorer behavioral self-regulation.

“More negative changes to family life predicted greater hair cortisol concentrations in children in June 2020, and more negative changes and less adaptive coping predicted worse child and mother psychosocial adjustment in December 2020,” the report stated.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has been a global mental health crisis, as well as a physical health crisis. Seeing as the majority of the world’s children live in low- and middle-income countries (LMIC), it is imperative to understand the factors that have contributed to their adjustment, as well as the adjustment of their parents, during the pandemic,” said NYUAD Assistant Professor of Psychology Antje von Suchodoletz, who was one of the study’s lead researchers.

Commenting on the need to address these mental health challenges, von Suchodoletz added: “Our research showed that in families experiencing greater disruption, the hair cortisol tests of children and mothers showed evidence of ‘stress getting under the skin’. These findings point to the importance of developing programs to address the daily needs of families in LMIC during periods of acute and prolonged crises, and particularly families with few economic resources to draw upon.”

Without effectively tailored assistance to support the needs of families at risk, the adverse physiological and psychological consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic will likely carry long-term effects on children’s future capacities to learn and thrive, the study concluded.

Seen in this context, investing in ameliorative efforts would cost less than future expenses incurred by the loss of healthy and productive generations.

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