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Isolation anxiety could harm kids – professor

Published:Monday | May 18, 2020 | 12:27 AMJudana Murphy/Gleaner Writer

Jamaican children shielded in restrictive home environments from the coronavirus pandemic may be vulnerable to early-onset mental-health disorders, says Professor Maureen Samms-Vaughan.

The displacement in school and family since Jamaica recorded its first confirmed case of COVID-19 on March 10 places children at greatest risk, the child-health expert has said.

“They had the anxiety of persons around them, almost constant information from the news, daily counts, disruption in their normal school life, home life, social life ... anxiety as adults became ill and died and worsening anxiety as a child died. That was a lot for our children,” said Samms-Vaughan.

She was speaking yesterday at The University of the West Indies’ (UWI) Faculty of Medical Sciences teleconference focused on the impact of COVID-19 on children and families in the Caribbean.

Samms-Vaughan, who works out of the Department of Child and Adolescent Health, Child Development and Behaviour, asserted that children are at risk of developing disorders owing to prolonged isolation, the significant difference between pandemics and disasters.

She said that the situation worsens for children in special circumstances such as those who have had the virus, those who live in poverty or in a quarantine community, and children of front-line workers.


“When they did parent surveys following the 2009 H1N1 pandemic in North America and Mexico, they found that there was post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in almost one out of every three children who had been isolated or quarantined. They also found that that happened for 25 per cent of parents,” Samms-Vaughan said.

It was also found that where adults had PTSD, the children were more likely to have suffered the same fate.

Additionally, 20 per cent of children who received mental-health services were found to have generalised anxiety disorder – they were fearful of everyday things.

More recently, in Wuhan, China, almost one in five children was depressed after being in lockdown for a week.

Samms-Vaughan said that parents must first be vigilant over their own physical and mental health, as they are their children’s first responders, and children often pick up on those fears and anxieties.

Like adults, children prefer when life is predictable.

“For children, the typical school routine is no longer present … . What has to happen now is that you have to develop new family routines that work,” the professor suggested.

Ensuring a healthy diet, keeping children engaged in activities, and having regular communication with friends and families are ways to help prevent mental-health disorders.

She is also urging parents to reduce their children’s exposure to the media amid the COVID-19 pandemic as they often cannot put the information in context.

“Encourage your children to speak or otherwise express how they are feeling. They could express how they are feeling by drawing, acting, or playing but you need to truly listen and participate.”

Common responses to stress

• Behavioural changes such as moodiness, aggression, irritability, or clinginess;

• Change in activity levels: increased or reduced;

• Difficulty concentrating;

• Inability to rest or relax;

• Change in eating habits;

• Change in sleep patterns;

• Change in bowel or bladder habits;

• Development of a nervous habit such as nail biting

When should you seek help:

• If your child’s behaviour is very different from what you are accustomed to;

• If your child’s new behaviour is continuing for a long time;

• If your child does not seem to respond to your attempts to help.

Where to seek help:

• Ministry of Education parenting helplines;

• Guidance counsellor;

• Family doctor or paediatrician.