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Children experienced more stress from family finances than school closures during COVID-19 pandemic, according to new study

The disruption of schooling caused by COVID-19 was less likely to harm children’s mental health than pandemic-related financial stress at home, according to a study co-authored by two researchers at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health (Berkeley Public Health).

The study, published March 13, 2023, in JAMA Network Open, a journal of the American Medical Association, found in a nationwide cohort of over 6,000 children ages 10 to 13, financial disruption was associated with a 205.2 % increase in perceived stress; 112.1% increase in perceived sadness, a 32.9 % decrease in positive affect; and a 73.9 percentage point increase in COVID-19-related worry.

The investigation was the first to use large, population-based, geocoded, longitudinal data to measure child mental health outcomes during the pandemic. Researchers used data gathered between May and December 2020, the early phase of the pandemic, when many schools switch to online learning or to hybrid in-person and online programs.

Their results showed that school disruptions alone were not associated with changes in mental health, the authors said. They also determined that  neither financial nor school disruptions were associated with changes in sleep. The findings were contrary to their hypothesis, which was that both financial and school disruptions due to COVID-19 policies harmed children’s mental health and disturbed their sleep.

“I was surprised,” said study co-author Timothy T. Brown, a health economist at Berkeley Public Health, and associate director for research at the Berkeley Center for Health Technology. “We found that the primary driver of mental health was problems in the home regarding parents not having employment, or having less employment. I think children are very sensitive as to how their parents perceive such situations.”

Brown said that school disruptions could also have played a role in worsening some children’s mental health problems, but any such effect was not large enough to detect.

The study used statistical techniques that allowed the research team to isolate changes in school disruptions and family financial disruptions that were due to COVID policies.  Child mental health effects were due to school disruptions and family financial disruptions, where school disruptions and family financial disruptions were primarily occurring due to various COVID policies.

Lonnie R. Snowden, a Berkeley Public Health professor of health policy and management, also worked on the study. The co-lead investigator was Dr. Yunyu Xiao, an assistant professor at Weill Cornell Medicine.

“During the pandemic,” the authors wrote, “policymakers faced the trade-off between reducing COVID-19 infection rates and causing potentially negative economic and mental health impacts.”

They recommend that policy makers aim to mitigate the economic impact of pandemic containment on families to improve child mental health.

The research team will next revisit the data, including new data on the same children that will soon become available, to determine the longer-term impacts of financial and schooling disruptions on mental health, including suicide-related outcomes.

The study was funded by the National Institute for Health Care Management Research and Education Foundation.

Additional authors included Julian Chun-Chung Chow, UC Berkeley School of Social Welfare; and Dr. J. John Mann, Departments of Psychiatry and Radiology, Columbia University Irving Medical Center, and Division of Molecular Imaging and Neuropathy, New York State Psychiatric Institute.