The fight of the German government and medical community against the psychological effects of the Corona pandemic

© DWIH Tokyo/iStock.com/hanabeni

June 08, 2021

[by Toru Kumagai]

The Corona pandemic threatens not only people’s physical health, their economic wellbeing (as well as the national economy), but also their mental health. As in Japan, the negative impact of the pandemic on people’s minds has been taken up as a serious issue in German academic circles and discussion forums.

Lockdowns have a major negative impact on children’s minds

Of particular concern is the impact of Corona pandemic on the mental wellbeing of children. In Germany, children and young people are increasingly considered to be the biggest victims of the pandemic. Since the initial lockdown in March 2020, children in Germany have been unable to attend school for extended periods of time, forcing them to study at home (homeschooling). Opportunities to play with friends and play sports have been greatly reduced. Even after school was resumed, some schools required students to endure daily Corona pandemic tests.
The pandemic has greatly increased the stress level at home. In many cases in Germany, both parents are employed, working in companies, government offices, or stores. Due to the lockdown, many parents had to switch to working from home. Moreover, many were unable to continue their work in factories or stores and became effectively unemployed. When parents are anxious and stressed, it is immediately felt by their children. This situation continued for almost a year and a half.
Students could not go to the campus, and all universities had to resort to online lectures. The number of students who after entering university could not see their professors or friends increased dramatically, and they spent many months staring at their computer screens at home. It also became difficult to work part-time to make ends meet. During the lockdown, pubs were closed for many months, so they could also not socialize with their friends to talk about their hardships.

One-third of children and adolescents show signs of adverse effects

These experiences had a profound effect on the mental health of children and adolescents, according to a study published by the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf (UKE) on February 10, 2021, which drew the attention of medical experts, politicians, and educators. The study, conducted by Professor Ulrike Ravens-Sieberer, who heads the UKE’s psychiatric clinic for children and adolescents, found that one in three of the children surveyed showed signs of adverse psychological and psychiatric effects of the pandemic.
In the second round of the project, called the COPSY (Corona pandemic und Psyche) survey, UKE medical scientists surveyed about 1,000 children and adolescents aged 7-17 and about 1,600 parents with an online questionnaire between mid-December 2020 and mid-January 2021. This was a follow-up from the first round of the study conducted in June 2020.
According to the results of the survey, the percentage of children and adolescents who said they were „distressed by the Corona pandemic“ increased from 72% in June 2020 to 85% in the second survey. In addition, the percentage of children and young people who said that their quality of life was declining had been 30% before the Corona pandemic, but increased now significantly to 60% in the first survey and 70% in the current survey.
The UKE researchers found that „30% of the respondents showed a tendency toward emotional instability, such as anxiety, crying easily, and waking up in the middle of the night due to the effects of Corona pandemic. Abdominal pain, headaches, depressed mood, and defiant attitude toward parents were also observed. The percentage of children showing these tendencies had only been 20% before the Corona pandemic,“ he pointed out.
45% of children and adolescents said that they had more problems with school than they did during the spring 2020 lockdown, and many respondents said that they had more disputes in their families and worse relationships with their parents and friends.
Professor Ravens-Sieberer emphasized that, „This survey shows that we need to prepare as a society a concept (measure) to maintain mental health for children and young people from troubled families. It is important for schools to be in constant contact with the children and youth and make sure that they are not isolated.
The professor pointed out that „troubled families“ include families with low incomes, families where parents are unemployed, families where parents are violent towards their children, and families that have not fully integrated into German society because of language and cultural barriers due to their recent immigration from abroad.
Professor Ravens-Sieberer added, „We must now pay more attention to the emotional burdens and needs of families, children and young people during the pandemic lockdown,“ and he suggested that the government and medical community need to build on this experience to create a framework for protecting children’s mental health. He expressed the view that the government and medical community need to create a framework to protect children’s mental health based on this experience.

77% of parents say that Corona pandemic has a negative impact on their children’s mental health

According to the results of a survey conducted by the public health insurance organization KKH in Hanover on June 3, 77% of the 1,000 parents who responded to the survey said that the Corona pandemic was weighing on their children’s minds and causing them stress. Many parents concluded that the Corona pandemic has become a burden to their children, causing stress.
According to the KKH, the number of children with eating disorders increased by 60% in the first half of 2020 compared to the same period last year. The number of children diagnosed with depression and burnout has also increased by 30 percent year-on-year.
The KKH examined data on 209,332 children and adolescents aged 6-18 in 2019 and found that about 27,000, or 12.8 percent, were treated by doctors for mental illness. According to the KKH, the number of children and adolescents receiving medical treatment for mental illness in Germany increased by 97% in the 10 years from 2009 to 2019, but the KKH concluded that „the Corona pandemic has accelerated this trend. The KKH is concerned that the Corona pandemic will accelerate this trend.
Children are not the only ones suffering from mental illness due to the Corona pandemic. In Germany, psychiatrists around the country have reported that the number of patients has increased significantly since December of 2020 compared to previous years. Some clinics are fully booked. This is an effect of the pandemic,“ they often say. The reason for this is that the pandemic has drastically changed our lives. Restrictions on going out and having contact with others to reduce the risk of infection, the introduction of telework, which has reduced contact with colleagues and friends, increased anxiety about unemployment, and increased stress in the home have led to an increase in the number of adults suffering from mental and psychological disorders.
The public health insurance management organization pronova BKK conducted a survey of 154 psychiatrists and psychotherapists in December 2020. The survey found that 82% of the respondents reported an increase in the number of patients with anxiety disorders compared to the pre-Corona pandemic period, 79% reported an increase in the number of depressed patients, and 74% reported an increase in the number of patients with adjustment disorders.
Two-thirds of the respondents stated that „compared to before the Corona pandemic, the number of citizens suffering from insomnia, fatigue, and loss of motivation without any physical cause has increased. One doctor who participated in the survey said, „People’s lives have changed a lot because of the Corona pandemic. New obligations and rules such as wearing masks, social distances, and contact restrictions, telework, risk of unemployment, and risk of infection have made many people very anxious. This anxiety is leading to an increase in the number of patients with mental illness,“ he said.

German Government Strengthens Research System on Mental Illness and Youth Health

On March 10, 2021, Federal Minister of Education and Research (BMBF) Anja Karlitschek announced the creation of two networks to study these topics.
One of them is the „German Center for Mental Health,“ which will research methods for the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of mental illness, and will be based in the following six cities:

City
Coordinator
Berlin Charité Medical University
Bochum Bochum Ruhr University
Jena Jena University Hospital
Mannheim Central Institute for Mental Health
Munich Ludwig-Maximilians-University
Tübingen University of Tübingen

The other is the „German Center for Adolescent Health,“ which is composed of seven universities and hospitals, including UKE in Hamburg and the University of Leipzig. The research focus of this network is the health of children and young people:

City
Coordinators
Berlin Charité Medical University
Göttingen Georg-August-University
Hamburg University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf
Leipzig University of Leipzig
Munich Ludwig-Maximilians-University
Ulm University of Ulm

The BMBF will provide a grant of 500,000 euros (about 65 million yen) for each center’s research project.
In Germany, universities and hospitals have created six research networks to find a cure for a disease that affects a large number of people (so-called “Volkskrankheiten” – “people’s illnesses”) and to quickly share the latest findings.

– German Center for Neurological Diseases (DZNE)
– German Research Center for Lung Diseases (DZL)
– German Research Center for Infectious Diseases (DZIF)
– German Research Center for Heart and Cardiovascular Diseases (DZHK)
– German Research Center for Diabetes (DZD)
– German Cancer Research Center (DKTK)

In other words, as more and more children and adolescents suffer from mental illness as a result of the pandemic, the German government and academia are creating two new research networks to develop comprehensive measures for the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental illness, especially in children.
In Germany, 43.8% of citizens had received their first dose of Corona pandemic vaccine by June 3, 19.6% had completed two doses, and the number of deaths, serious illnesses, and new infections has declined since May, with state governments easing lockdowns one after another.
However, the virus has not disappeared and we are still forced to live with the Corona pandemic on a daily basis. On the contrary, various mutant strains have been found in various parts of the world, making it difficult to be optimistic. There is a possibility that the number of infected people will increase again in the fall and winter, perhaps making yet another lockdown necessary in Germany. The urgent need remains for the government and the medical community to establish a system to protect mental health during the lockdown.

Related event information:

Virtual symposium: Coping with the Crisis – The Psychosocial Impact of the Pandemic

What are the social and psychological effects of COVID-19?
On June 10 from 18:00 (JST) / 11:00 (CEST), the DWIH Tokyo and the Japanese-German Center Berlin (JDZB) are holding a joint virtual symposium titled „Coping with the Crisis“. Practitioners from Germany and Japan will report on their experiences during the pandemic while experts from various disciplines will exchange their findings and assess consequences of the pandemic for both countries – with the aim of identifying underlying trends as well as possible solutions.

For more information and to register, click here.

Click here to read the full article on „Toru Kumagai’s report on R&D trends in Germany“.

About Toru Kumagai

Born in Tokyo in 1959, Kumagai graduated from the Department of Political Science and Economics at Waseda University in 1982 and joined Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK), where he gained a wealth of experience in domestic reporting and overseas assignments. After NHK, he has lived and worked as a journalist in Munich, Germany, since 1990. He has published more than 20 books on Germany and Germany-Japan relations, as well as been to numerous media outlets to report on the situation in Germany.