The Orphan Girl at the Cemetery

Doubling COVID’s Toll: Mental Health and Child Obesity

The numbers make it crystal clear. One of the long-term effects of the COVID pandemic will be a jump in child obesity. And it’s not hard to trace that back to the mental health of children and families. Late last week a new report in Pediatrics provided a stark reminder about the impact of COVID on children. Roughly 140,000 children have lost a primary caregiver to death because of the pandemic. That is 140,000 children who have lost a parent, grandparent, or another loved one who cared for them.

Now let’s recall that adverse childhood experiences are an important trigger for obesity. So the straight line from these devastating losses to the jump in childhood obesity rates is easy to see.

Unfortunate Complacency About Children and COVID

Early in the pandemic, some people falsely thought that children were “essentially immune” to COVID. Now we’ve learned how wrong they were. First of all, with the Delta surge, pediatric ICUs have been filling up. But in addition, the indirect effects on mental and physical health have been great.

Obesity prevalence in kids has clearly grown in the pandemic. Further, COVID has put the mental health of the world’s 2.2 billion children at risk. A new report from the UN tells us that nearly one in five young people often feel depressed or have little interest in life. Children’s hospitals in the U.S. have seen dramatic increases in children seeking mental health services.

So without a doubt, the presumption that COVID was not a threat to children has proven to be terribly wrong.

Mental Health and Obesity: A Two-Way Street

The relationship between mental health and obesity goes in two directions. Stress, distress, and adverse childhood experiences can fuel weight gain. On the other side of this link, it’s also clear that obesity can fuel mental health distress. Bullying and social isolation are significant problems for a child living with obesity. Public health messaging that tended to blame children and parents for this metabolic disease has long been a problem.

As just one example, screening and singling out children with obesity in school was once a popular policy. Research now shows that it offers no benefit while having the potential to do real harm.

World Mental Health Day 2021

Today is World Mental Health Day. The rallying cry is to make mental health care for all a reality. Recognizing the link between obesity and mental health makes this especially important for people living with obesity. Even more so, it is important for children. So let’s resolve to live up to this challenge and take it one step further. Let’s all do our part to stop the harm that weight stigma does to children who are living with obesity.

Click here for the study in Pediatrics of children orphaned by COVID and here for more from NIH. For an excellent overview of the interaction between child obesity and mental health, click here. Finally, for more on World Mental Health Day, click here.

The Orphan Girl at the Cemetery, painting by Eugene Delacroix / WikiArt

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October 10, 2021