The pandemic triggered requests for help from minors due to eating disorders and suicidal ideas

The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the mental health of minors. It is one of the conclusions drawn by the annual report of the Anar Foundation, which analyzes the requests for help that children and adolescents sent to their telephone and attention chat during 2020. The diagnosis concludes that, since the beginning of the pandemic, The professionals who attend the service have seen how psychological and emotional problems have increased and have registered an escalation of requests for “urgent and serious” help, reaching “record figures” compared to 2019.

The foundation, which was declared essential service with the first declaration of a state of alarm, received more than 160,000 requests last year, of which 2,277 are considered ’emergency interventions’, and 11,760 serious cases. As for the consultations related to psychological problems, during the months of confinement, those related to suicidal ideas increased, with more than 250%; anxiety, with about 300%; low self-esteem, with 210%; and depression and sadness, with about 90%. In this sense, during the first exits of the pandemic, eating disorders increased by more than 800%; and with the return to the classroom, self-harm (246%), aggressiveness, and grief.

But not only an increase in consultations regarding psychological problems in minors has been detected, but also an increase in cases of high urgency, with 40%, and of maximum severity, with more than 55%. In the case of already presenting this type of situations a priori, these have been chronified with the confinements, and requests for help in these cases increased by 50% compared to the previous year.

According to Benjamín Ballesteros, Director of Programs of the ANAR Foundation, the epidemiological situation has meant a “Molotov cocktail” of different elements that has resulted in this scenario: the confinement of the family nucleus in a small space, the pressure on families for work or the absence of other protective places such as the school or the doctor, in addition to fear of the pandemic and mourning for loved ones. Likewise, Ballesteros considers that “now we see the consequences” of a situation that they already warned about at the beginning of the health crisis.

On the other hand, an increase in technology-related inquiries has also been observed, from 23% to 29%. Among them, online sexual harassment and abuse of children, the so-called grooming; and others such as cyberbullying, pornography and child prostitution.

Differences in stages

The report establishes a difference with respect to requests for help in the different stages of the pandemic compared to the same dates in 2019: the pre-pandemic, the strict confinement derived from the first declaration of the state of alarm, the so-called ‘new normal’, the first departures, and the return to school – until December 31, 2020, which is the period analyzed by the organization.

In the first stage, the study specifies, the reasons for consultation are concentrated in cases of violence (53%) and psychological problems (19.8%) in the same line as other years. However, during the strict confinement and the beginning of the pandemic, the figures changed and psychological consultations for children and adolescents increased by 28.7%. At this time, the Anar chat was reinforced to protect minors, as they were especially vulnerable to cases of violence within families, because they lived with their attackers throughout the day. Among other measures, the foundation installed the automatic deletion of the conversation.

Likewise, at the beginning of the pandemic, cases of violence decreased slightly, although it was due to the sharp decline in violence outside the home, while cyberbullying and abuse within homes experienced an escalation.

In this context, it was “expected” that young people suffered from depression, sadness or anxiety, but the professionals found “very serious psychological problems such as an increase in the cases of suicide ideas and attempts”, as well as “eating disorders as a form of emotional self-regulation and low self-esteem”, specifies the analysis. Professionals consider the increase in self-harm “surprising”: “Living in the same physical space as their mothers and fathers, these events are happening without being conscious”, they draw attention.

For Brenda de la Peña, a psychologist and disseminator on social networks, the situation experienced with the infections meant “sustained mental stress”, which “has a great impact on mental and physical health.” As he explains, “there are many types of self-harm, such as getting angry and punching the closet”, but there are many parents who do not qualify it as such due to the lack of information.

With the first exits, consultations on suicide attempts and self-harm were maintained, but there was a record growth compared to other years of eating disorders, as well as aggressiveness and anger. During this time, there is “the highest growth in times of a pandemic of expulsion from the home”, with 260%, as well as problems of separation, custody and visitation, and social assistance and child poverty.

“Children had to be with their families and exposed to situations of physical or verbal violence for a longer time, such as when they beat you up with the issue of diet or put pressure on you with the physical,” explains de la Peña. In this sense, the psychologist affirms that the context was mixed with the lack of motivation, so that many kids saw an escape route in social networks, which produced greater pressure for “being great.”

Finally, with the return to school, behavior problems, suicide attempts in minors, and self-harm increased. All this as a consequence of “what has been experienced during the months of confinement”, which have left “a mark and generate collateral emotional damage” in the young people, concludes the diagnosis.


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