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Psychiatric Epidemiologist Tamsin Ford Talks Children’s Mental Health Amid Covid-19

The Harvard School of Public Health hosts a Population Mental Health Forum Series.
The Harvard School of Public Health hosts a Population Mental Health Forum Series. By Ryan N. Gajarawala
By Krishi Kishore, Crimson Staff Writer

Child psychiatric epidemiologist Tamsin Ford discussed Covid-19’s impact on childrens’ mental health at a virtual research presentation hosted by the Harvard School of Public Health on Wednesday.

Based out of the University of Cambridge, Ford researches the effectiveness of mental health services and interventions aimed at children and young adults. Wednesday’s event was part of the Population Mental Health Forum Series hosted by HSPH professor Karestan Koenen.

Ford began by highlighting the drawbacks of three systematic reviews conducted by McGill University, which screened the abstracts of over 90,000 research papers. The reviews examined changes in mental health throughout the pandemic, factors driving these changes, and intervention strategies.

“The McGill team were more focused on adults at the beginning, and they are only looking at emotional disorders,” Ford said. “I think there’s a real issue about behavior, peer relationship, and prosocial skills.”

Ford continued by explaining the results from a systematic review conducted at the University of Cambridge, which identified 51 studies helpful for understanding children’s mental health amid Covid-19.

“Children who were doing really well pre-pandemic experienced a drop in prosocial skills and peer relationships, whereas those who were struggling prior experienced better peer relationships and more prosocial behavior, which is really intriguing,” Ford noted of the review.

Ford also discussed similar findings from a report published by the Harvard School of Public Health that collected mental health data from 13- and 14-year-old students across 17 schools between 2019 and 2020. The report found improvements among students struggling with depression before pandemic.

“Overall, there was no difference on their mental health measures between the two times in the whole population,” Ford said. “But when you split it by mental health pre-pandemic … you can see that those who were struggling are doing better.”

She observed a similar trend in measures of anxiety and well-being.

Shifting focus to the impact of Long Covid — recurring health issues after Covid-19 — on children’s mental health, Ford introduced the preliminary results of a study that tracked over three months the physical and mental health of children aged 11 to 17 in England who tested either positive or negative for Covid-19. The study aimed to see if Long Covid impacted the health of children who tested positive compared to their peers who tested negative.

“These young people who were struggling were more likely in both groups to be girls rather than boys, to be older teens rather than early adolescents, and to have had poor baseline physical and mental health,” she said.

Referencing the Mental Health of Children and Young People national surveys in England, Ford also described overall patterns in mental health metrics across gender and racial groups.

“Young women seem to be doing particularly badly and had a particularly sharp deterioration initially,” Ford said. “There was a sharp sudden deterioration that’s maintained amongst the white population, whereas ethnic minorities are experiencing a more steady deterioration.”

Ford concluded that the rise of mental health issues in children are concentrated within particular groups, such as those who are struggling financially or have pre-existing mental health conditions.

“One in six may be struggling in the UK, but that means five in six are not,” she said. “So we shouldn’t panic, and we should think about universal indicated and targeted responses.”

—Staff writer Krishi Kishore can be reached at krishi.kishore@thecrimson.com.

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