April 21, 2024

Teenage boys have been hit hardest by the Covid-19 lockdown, with their mental health failing to recover despite the return to normality, according to the most comprehensive academic study of its kind.

Early research on how confinement affected children indicated this girls had more severe mental health problems as boys.

However, a new study carried out by academics from three British universities has been published in the journal European Child + Adolescent Psychiatryfound that teenage boys’ mental health was more adversely affected over the long term.

The research followed a group of around 200 children, aged between 11 and 14 at the time, who asked them and their mothers to assess their mental state. It recorded data from each child before lockdown, three months after the measures began and again at 15 months after the pandemic.

Researchers then compared this data with historical records showing the usual pattern of mental well-being for boys and girls during adolescence.

The academics found that while both sexes experienced an immediate decline in their mental health, boys then did not experience the natural improvement in mental well-being that usually accompanies adulthood as they move through the teenage years.

Dr Nicky Wright, a lecturer in psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University and a co-author of the paper, said: “The key message from this is that we expect more boys to be at risk of mental health problems now than we would before do. [the pandemic].

Boris Johnson announces first lockdown in March 2020. Photo: PA Video/PA

“On average, girls are more likely to suffer from mental health problems than boys. But the girls in the study followed their usual pattern, suggesting that the experience of being locked up had a greater impact on boys than girls.

“There was not a pandemic effect on girls’ depression. When you factor in puberty and development, it’s consistent with past trends,” Wright said.

This weekend marks four years since the first UK lockdown was called on 23 March 2020. Schools was closed, leaving teenagers who were used to spending at least six hours a day surrounded by peers isolated from society. Work set by teachers for homeschooling took an average of between two and three hours a day for most adolescents to complete, and with many parents working, many teenagers were left alone for long periods of time.

For those moving between elementary and high school during the pandemic years, lockdowns have also disrupted integration into new social groups and the chance to form friendships.

For older teenagers, universities and colleges have switched to virtual lectures and seminars, preventing new students from forming bonds with others.

Psychologist and author Wendy Gregory said the study’s findings reflect changes to her client list in her private practice. “Incarceration has had a terrible impact on mental health, particularly in boys and young men, and in part I’m seeing the results of this now as I’m seeking therapy a lot more,” she said.

“There’s been a big uptick in men seeking mental health support, across the age groups generally, and for teenage boys there’s been a big increase.”

In south London, Dr Jen Wills Lamacq, a child psychologist working in state schools, said she had seen first-hand the pandemic’s effect on boys’ mental health, including increased difficult behaviour. She believes the decline in young male mental health is caused by the break in their lives at a crucial point in adolescent development.

“Many boys, to regulate their emotions, may want to be outside, doing something active and around other people, without necessarily talking. For long periods of time, they have been deprived of opportunities to regulate their mental well-being in a way that comes naturally to them,” she said.

For parents of teenage boys and young men, the findings may come as little surprise. Single mum Rebecca*, from London, says her teenage son, who was already receiving counseling before the pandemic, had a meltdown during lockdown which led to him becoming violent and the police being called to restrain him.

“He was busy with his GCSEs and when lockdown first happened it was a huge relief because he didn’t have to go to school because that was a trigger for anxiety, but to lose that routine was terrible and he had a breakdown. He had a psychotic episode where he was hearing voices. The police came and were very hard on him, and they put him in handcuffs in front of me,” she said.

Rebecca’s son is now an adult and his health has improved since that crisis point, but she says confinement has had a lasting impact on his mental well-being. “I think it was horrible. I think there will be consequences for years to come for all children,” she said.

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