More children diagnosed with mental illness amid Victoria’s second Covid wave

Exclusive: Data analysis of 3m patients also shows near eradication of flu and gastro

There has been a significant increase in anxiety, depression and eating disorders in young people aged up to 14 years old since Victoria’s second coronavirus wave began, data analysis of 3 million patients across general practices in Victoria and New South Wales has found.

The study was led by Monash University, with researchers analysing data from more than 1,000 GP practices in NSW and Victoria.

The sample data used for the research represents about 30% of the national population.

While there had been a near eradication of the usual winter infectious diseases like influenza, bronchiolitis and gastro, owing to Covid-19 restrictions, the researchers found a significant and sustained increase in mental illnesses.

In the week of July 8 to 14 in 2019, 6,734 antibiotic prescriptions were written for children in the zero-to-four age group, compared with 2,632 prescriptions in 2020.

Similar patterns were seen in the four- to nine-year-old group, where there has been a 35% reduction in antibiotic prescriptions for the year up till 18 August.

“The seasonal autumn/winter syndromic peak of bronchiolitis which typically affects infants and young children did not occur,” the report found.

“Rates of 10% of usual infections were seen in weeks 16 to 24 of the year (the period after the first wave, and before the second wave) and although rates have risen since, they are still at around 50% of usual.”

Deaths from gastro and influenza in children were “negligible”, the report found.

“The challenge therefore is to decide what social distancing measure could and should be implemented to prevent these epidemics in future years.”

But eating disorders also saw a significant and sustained increase from week 13 (25 March) onwards, with a doubling of diagnosis rates.

By the week of 22 July onwards, anxiety-related diagnoses reached a peak for the year, comprising 2.4% of all consultations to general practitioners in the group aged zero to 19, compared with 1.1% in the same age group in 2019.

In the same week, depression-related diagnoses comprised 1.5% of total consultations in the same age group in 2020, compared with less than 1% in the same week in 2019.

The data also found the prescription of oral contraceptives has been higher than in previous years, and that there was no increase in teenage pregnancy or sexually transmitted diseases.

There was an increase in diagnoses of skin conditions such as eczema, dermatitis and rash, as well as prescriptions of topical treatments for these conditions.

“Our (untested) hypothesis is that there is an increase in eczema related to long periods indoors with central heating,” the report said.

Adjunct Prof Chris Pearce, who led the research, said the positive news was that along with a reduction in some infectious diseases in young people, the data shows they were seeking help for depression and other mental illnesses from their doctors.

But beyond the pandemic, he said, governments must find ways to support parents to spend more time caring for their children at home because staying at home while sick was significantly limiting disease spread and deaths.

“Make it easy for parents to take time off for at least a week to support and care for their children during their illness, and let online learning be part of the process of catching up on schoolwork,” he said. “We could continue to reduce the burden of diseases from influenza and bronchiolitis beyond the epidemic.”

The study also found immunisation rates increased rapidly for weeks 13 to 20 (25 Mar to 19 May), which coincided with a public program encouraging influenza immunisations.

A Royal Australian College of General Practitioners spokeswoman, Dr Cathy Andronis, said throughout the pandemic children were not intermingling as much as they normally would, so it was not surprising to see falls in diagnoses of some diseases.

“What we’re instead seeing is an increase in mental health concerns among children and young people, including anxiety and depression,” she said.

“As a GP I have seen more people reporting feelings of isolation and stress this year and we must remember that many children and young people have had their normal social networks and routines disrupted.

“Shifts to home-schooling for age groups spanning kindergarten years to vocational training, as well as worrying about what the future may bring, can all have a significant impact on mental health.”

She agreed with Pearce that it was encouraging that more families were consulting their GP for help with mental health issues.

“My message to all patients is the same – if you have any concerns about your child’s mental health or your own mental health, please book a consultation with a GP right away,” she said.

“Do not delay or avoid consultations because of fears about Covid-19, and remember that telehealth services, including via telephone and video technology, are available.”


Melissa Davey

The GuardianTramp

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