Worried Sick

COVID-19 driving increased parental concern for their children’s health

The newest American Psychiatric Association (APA) national consumer opinion poll,1 released during the APA 2021 virtual Annual Meeting and covering March 26 through April 5, 2021, confirms what many – if not all – Americans feel: COVID-19 continues to trigger anxieties.

What’s interesting about this latest poll, which included 1,000 Interviews with adults 18 years of age and older, is that it reports a slight uptick in parental concern over their children catching COVID-19, with 64% of Americans now anxious about family and loved ones coming down with any of the SARS-CoV-2 strains out there. It’s not a huge increase in anxiety over last year, which came in at 56%, but between vaccines and the country’s gradual reopening, one might have expected this number to drop.

“This poll shows that even as vaccines become more widespread, Americans are still worried about the mental state of their children,” said APA President Jeffrey Geller, MD, MPH, in a press release. “This is a call to action for policymakers, who need to remember that in our COVID-19 recovery, there’s no health without mental health.”

Parental anxiety over their children catching COVID-19 is a multifaceted topic, says Gabrielle Shapiro, MD, chair of APA’s Council on Children, Adolescents, and their Families. “Last year, no one knew how bad COVID-19 could – or would – be. There was also this brief period when we didn’t even know if children could catch the virus. We had no pediatric data yet, so there wasn’t a lot of anxiety about children getting COVID-19. Obviously, we know better now.”

Moms and dads may also be experiencing separation anxiety. “Many parents spent the entire past year with their children – 24/7 – and along the way they developed a more intimate relationship with their children,” Dr. Shapiro explains. “Now they need to relinquish control and let their children return to school. Even if you believe that school is where your child should be, it’s still an emotional separation for many parents.”

There’s also the issue of “misinformation,” something that’s plagued COVID-19 coverage from the start. “Here’s an area where we might want to break out the data a little further,” Dr. Shapiro suggests. “It would be interesting to know where the most anxious parents are getting their news updates.”

Another area that might help explain continued parental anxiety concerns vaccinations. “I wonder if the parents most anxious about their children catching COVID-19 are also parents who are unvaccinated or vaccination-hesitant. That statistic would tell us a lot.” 

Head First

Worries about our children and teens’ mental health is also prompting increased parental anxiety. The APA poll found that more than half of adults (53%) with children under 18 in their household are concerned about their children’s mental state. Diving deeper into this stat, almost half (48%) of these adults report that the pandemic has caused mental health problems for one or more of their children, including minor problems for 29% and major problems for 19%.

Among parents who have children under 18, nearly half (49%) of those surveyed report that their child has received help from a mental health professional since the pandemic began. Among those receiving help, 23% received help from a primary care professional, 18% from a psychiatrist, 15% from a psychologist, 13% from a therapist, 10% from a social worker, and 10% from a school counselor or school psychologist. More than one in five parents say they’ve had trouble scheduling appointments for their child with a mental health professional.

The Ups ‘n Downs

Here’s a snapshot of which anxieties have gone down and which are on the rise.

  • More than four in 10 adults (43%) report that the pandemic has had a “serious impact” on their mental health, which is up from 37% in 2020.

Dissecting this stat further, 59% of younger adults are more likely to report that the pandemic has had a “serious impact” on their mental health; 54% of 30 to 44-year-olds report a serious mental health impact; and only 24% of older adults report serious mental health impacts.

  • 17% of those surveyed report increased alcohol or other substances/drugs consumption due to COVID-19, which is up from last year’s stat of 14%.
  • 49% of Americans are anxious about catching the virus themselves, which is up from 48% in 2020.
  • Fewer Americans report that the coronavirus pandemic is affecting their day-to-day life, with daily activities including problems sleeping (19% down from 22%), difficulties concentrating (18% down from 20%) and fighting more with loved ones (16% down from 17%).

Will all this anxiety lessen with time? For many, yes. But for others, not so much. “While most people, including most children, will likely adapt and recover well as we emerge from the pandemic, we know from previous research that for some, the mental health impacts of this trauma and distress will continue to have repercussions into the future,” said APA CEO and Medical Director Saul Levin, MD, MPA, in an APA press release. “We need to be prepared to help those who need it in the coming months and years.”