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Children, the Pandemic, and Long-term Mental Health Consequences

New work from Penn Nursing and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia describes the importance of recognizing COVID-19’s psychological effects on young people and the pivotal role pediatric nurses in all settings can play.

By now, we have a relatively good general understanding of COVID-19’s physiological effects on children and teens: Compared to adults, fewer young people have gotten the virus, and those infected generally tend to have milder symptoms or none at all. What’s far less known are the pandemic’s psychological effects on this population, both in the short and long term. It’s a question that researchers from Penn’s School of Nursing and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) aim to address in a new Pediatric Nursing paper.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is a severe traumatic experience, whether from the social isolation or from a parent or loved one getting sick or dying,” says Marcus Henderson, a Penn Nursing lecturer and practicing adolescent psychiatric-mental health nurse. “They’re going to carry this experience with them the rest of their lives.”

Last summer, Henderson published a paper in the Online Journal of Issues in Nursing on the psychological effects of COVID-19 on the general population. The work got him thinking about where the pandemic and mental health intersect for children and adolescents. Around the same time, at the behavioral health hospital where he works, he began seeing more pandemic-related admissions from that age group.

His patients—primarily children of color from low-income families—began expressing a range of challenges, from a lack of support during online schooling to feeling socially isolated. “Some already experienced housing and food insecurity before COVID, and now they weren’t getting reliable meals in school. Now they weren’t getting to see their school counselor, their school nurse.” Seeing these factors converge for so many prompted Henderson to reach out to Sharon Irving, associate professor at Penn Nursing and a critical care nurse practitioner, to discuss how they might contribute to this conversation.

Together with Cynthia Schmus, a CHOP pediatric nurse practitioner, and Catherine McDonald, an associate professor in the School of Nursing and CHOP, Henderson and Irving wrote a paper geared toward both pediatric nurses and the general public. The work speaks to the immediate and lasting mental health consequences the pandemic will have for children, and relays to pediatric nurses in any setting that they are well-positioned to assess and intervene.

“We have lost more than 400,000 people to this pandemic. On no level are we trying to downplay the severity and importance of that,” Irving says. “At the same time, there’s this population of children that, while they aren’t experiencing COVID as an infectious illness at the same rate as adults, there are other areas affected that we don’t even know the full scope of yet.”

This is an excerpt from a larger article that originally appeared in Penn Today. It was written by Michele Berger, senior science news officer in University Communications.