UL study shows young people may have fared better than feared during lockdown

Reduction in emotional difficulties reported among some pupils forced to stay at home

Young people may have fared better during the Covid-19 lockdown than was previously thought. File photograph: Getty Images

Young people including those with pre-existing mental health issues and special educational needs may have fared better during the Covid-19 lockdown than was previously thought.

That is according to a University of Limerick study which found there was a reduction in emotional difficulties among some pupils forced to stay at home, suggesting the schools may in fact be a source of anxiety or worry.

The study, entitled Co-Space (Covid-19 Supporting Parents, Adolescents and Children during Epidemics) was led by Dr Jennifer McMahon and linked to a study of the same name at the University of Oxford.

Dr McMahon and researchers at UL tracked children and young people’s mental health during the lockdown from the period April 10th to May 22nd, while strict restrictions were in place.


Over 1,800 parents/carers and 400 adolescents have taken part in the study to date and some of these parents and adolescents were tracked across the month.

The findings indicated that while parents and carers feared for the children, there were no significant levels of distress. In fact “for some young people with pre-existing mental health issues and special educational needs there was a reduction in emotional difficulties”, Dr McMahon said.

Primary school children were among the most affected by school closures, reporting increased emotional and attention difficulties throughout the period. But the level of difficulty was not seen to be “significant”, according to researchers.

Researchers said they were surprised at the reaction of adolescents who reported no change in their emotional difficulties and reported a reduction in attention and restlessness issues. The finding suggests adolescents adapted somewhat to their circumstances while parents of this age group also reported improvements in emotional difficulties during this time.

Dr McMahon said there may be a variety of factors involved in the findings, and “lots of caveats” but “it suggests that school may in fact be a source of anxiety or worry” for some.

She warned that these young people “will likely need extra and ongoing support as they settle back into regular schooling”.

She also noted the results of the sister study in the UK, which had more than 10,000 participants, found “significant increases on these aspects which suggests that this trend is important”.

Supportive approach

Dr Sharon Houghton, clinical psychologist and researcher on the study explained that those with pre-existing school refusal and anxiety conditions may be expected to express a reduction in symptoms in the short-term at least. However, she said “what we do know about anxiety is that when the source of the anxiety is reintroduced, it is likely to return and often in a more acute form”.

The researchers said a supportive approach taken by schools to reintroduce children to classrooms and gradually reintroduce homework “has been of great benefit to our children and adolescents who are more vulnerable,” Dr Houghton added.

The researchers concluded there was a diversity in how the lockdown affected children and adolescents and further research is needed to fully understand the range of risk and protective factors for their mental health.

The team continues to track the experiences of families and young people as the pandemic unfolds and is still seeking participants. The questions include a range of topics related to family life and relationships, overall health and wellbeing, parenting, education, psychological symptoms and how they and their child are coping during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“We are also interested in adolescents’ views and so if parents or carers have a child between 11-18 years there will be an option for them to take part also, once the parent or carer has completed the initial survey. Regular summaries of the research findings will be available on the research website,” added Dr McMahon.

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien

Tim O'Brien is an Irish Times journalist