The mental health and wellbeing of children living in conflict-affected countries is dangerously deteriorating as they struggle to cope with the socio-economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. Having survived life-threatening, life-altering conflicts, their ongoing fear, trauma and chronic stress is compounded by the daily anxiety, uncertainty and hardship produced by the pandemic.
These children are best placed to articulate their worries and concerns about the devastating toll that COVID-19 is taking on their mental health and their future, as well as its insidious impact on their families and communities.
To better comprehend this alarming, underreported global situation, World Vision and War Child Holland spoke to 220 children, 245 adolescents and young people, 287 parents and carers and 44 child protection experts and community leaders in six conflict-affected countries: Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Jordan, Lebanon, the occupied Palestinian territory and South Sudan. The interviews took place between August and December 2020 across refugee camps, shelters for the displaced people and host communities.
The findings of this consultation, as summarised below, are startling and deeply concerning and need urgent action.
More than half (57%) of children living in fragile and conflictaffected countries expressed a need for mental health and psychosocial support as a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns. This rises to 70% for refugee and displaced children as opposed to 43% for children in host communities.
Children and young people (38%) say they are feeling sad and fearful, with 12% on the extreme end of continuously feeling sad and fearful who may be at risk of developing mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety. This is higher than the World Health Organization’s estimate of 9%i of young people and adults combined experiencing extreme distress in conflict settings.
The children’s feelings stem from complex daily worries. Most children and parents feared contracting COVID-19 themselves or that relatives might die from the virus. 40% of children and 48% of parents indicate that COVID-19 is the main risk affecting their emotions. Children are anxious about school closures, interrupted access to basic services and their families’ economic hardships due to COVID-19 containment measures. Some shared that they have gone hungry after parents lost their jobs.
Children (aged 7-14) confided that they turn to trusted friends and family members for emotional support (86%), but youth (aged 19-24) are struggling to cope with the distress on their own. Less than half (41.8%) say they have someone they can look to for help.
More than half of the parents (51.2%) reported changes in how their children spend their days in the community since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Of the parents, 44.3% noticed changes in their relationships with their children, including children’s aggressive behaviour, and stress and pressure on both children and parents.
Children and young people emphasized the negative effect on their mental health and wellbeing of disrupted access to critical services. They mentioned schools most frequently as being less available (89.2%), followed by services and activities (70.9%), playgrounds (65.0%), health centres (41.9%), food (38.1%) and water (10.6%). COVID-19 containment measures have also hampered community-based child protection, prevention and monitoring activities, putting children even more at risk.
Children identified family poverty and food insecurity (38.1%) as a chief concern. For displaced children or those living in conflict zones, their parents’ and caregivers’ job loss puts them at grave risk of food insecurity, forcing them to resort to negative coping mechanisms and potentially resulting in violations of their rights and protections. This in turn contributes to their increased sense of helplessness and stress.