A young girl was attending high school in Norway when the pandemic hit. The school closure reinforced her vulnerability from before, and she became depressed and isolated. It became difficult for her to return to school, and she dropped out after completing only one year of high school.
Helga Ask is a researcher at the Norwegian Institute of Public Health and leading the newly started project “Post-pandemic mental health: Risk and resilience in young people (CovidmentYOUNG)”. She talks about the above example of a young girl who had a difficult time both during the pandemic, and for a long time afterwards. This example is far from unique.
“During the pandemic, there were reports that children and young people, who had otherwise never been in contact with the health services before, seeking their help. Although you can sometimes get the impression that people are tired of talking about the pandemic, something happened to children and young people during the pandemic and it’s still ongoing, which is why it’s so important that we do research in this area. I don’t think we’ve returned to the world we were in before the pandemic, and we don’t yet know what this means for vulnerable children and young people going forwards,” she says.
The project will focus on how the pandemic has affected young people in the general population, as well as on how it affected young people who, before the pandemic, had reported or were diagnosed with eating problems and disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, self-harm, depression, anxiety, and lack of wellbeing.
“We want to find out who was at risk of suffering mental health problems and how they were affected. The hope is to find out if there were any protective factors that made vulnerable young people fare better than expected through the pandemic. If we find protective factors, this will be an important lesson to leverage in a future crisis situation,” says Helga.
The forerunner of this project was the previous NordForsk-funded project COVIDMENT, which focused on the mental health of adults during the pandemic.
“The focus of the current project CovidmentYOUNG is instead on children and young people aged 12 to 25 and is a collaboration between researchers from Iceland, Norway, Denmark, and Sweden. The database is extensive,” explains Helga.
“We have unique data which have been included in this project, in particular from Nordic birth cohort studies such as the Norwegian Mother, Father and Child Cohort Study (MoBa) . More than 90,000 families with children born between 1999 and 2009 have contributed information to the study. During the pandemic, those children were in the age group 11 to 23. There is information about the children, their parents and the family situation, and the young people answered questions both before and during the pandemic, so a large amount of data is available. On top of that, we have register data from Iceland, Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, and it’s a great advantage to be able to compare this with the birth cohort data.”
According to Helga, it’s a great strength that CovidmentYOUNG is a Nordic project:
“It’s great to be able to build networks across the Nordic countries and of course, it’s a strength for the research because we have a larger database from several countries. In the past, I’ve experienced that it’s easier to publish research articles in journals when you have data from several countries. Our Nordic countries are becoming a more important part of the bigger picture, and that’s a strength in itself. I also see how useful it is to have a Nordic platform to stand on when applying for an EU research project, for example.”
Knowledge is important
The lack of knowledge about the consequences of the pandemic for children and young people prompted NordForsk to start eight new research projects in 2022, one of which is CovidmentYOUNG. In connection with this, director of NordForsk, Arne Flåøyen, stated that it’s imperative to produce knowledge about the effects of the pandemic on children and young people:
“The pandemic was an extraordinary event in which children and young people were directly and indirectly exposed to a number of measures, including closed schools and the limited provision of activities. The Nordic countries dealt with this in different ways, which is why it’s important that we work together to find out what worked and what didn’t, and what long-term consequences the pandemic will have on children and young people. Above all, we must keep in mind that we have to avoid repeating the same mistakes.”
Read or re-read the report from the conference “Is everything going to be okay? The consequences of the pandemic for children and young people in the Nordic Region”. The conference was held in November 2022 as a prelude to the call and was organised as a collaboration between the Research Council of Norway and NordForsk, with the support of the Ministry of Education and Research in Norway.