The pandemic has been a mental health bomb for children and adolescents. The Anar Foundation, which manages telephone help lines and a chat for minors who suffer violence or psychological problems, counted 11,761 serious cases in 2020, ranging from mistreatment to sexual abuse, eating disorders or relationship difficulties, for example. In a published report published this Wednesday, Anar warns that “record levels” of anxiety or depression were reached. They attended 412 cases of suicide ideation or attempt, 145% more than in 2019, and 205 people for self-harm, a 180% increase. The foundation has been warning for months that the problems that concern minors have skyrocketed in the last year. Not just psychological. They also provided assistance in 1,601 cases of physical abuse: in a year in which minors spent more time than ever at home, the environment in which they were supposed to be more protected, the increase in cases was 21%.
Benjamín Ballesteros, the director of Programs of this organization, explains that the homes suffered a “Molotov cocktail” that has led to an increase in serious problems in children and adolescents. For a long period of time it was impossible for them to leave home, they have been subjected to restrictions, they have felt that they lost freedom, they have suffered the death of their loved ones, the fear of death, the tension of a confined space, no school, tucked into the house … This caused anxiety and sadness to increase. And, in these circumstances, the psychological consequences skyrocket. “We are talking about minors who live in permanent and long-lasting tension. It’s like a pressure cooker, ”says Ballesteros.
A 15-year-old adolescent asked them for help like this: “I have suicidal thoughts all the time … Frankly speaking, I hardly eat and I don’t like the image I see in the mirror.” Last year, more than half of the cases were considered of maximum severity – 55.6%, compared to 44.9% in 2019 – and four out of 10, of high urgency – compared to 28.6% of the year previous-. “I have had two suicide attempts, in addition to self-harm … I think the quarantine situation is coming to me,” said, at 16, another person who felt that the world was coming on him.
Six emergencies a day
The foundation received 166,433 requests for help throughout the country, both from adults who reported a situation involving minors, and from children or adolescents themselves, mostly girls, because “men show more difficulties in asking help”. Most of the time, they are solved with a general orientation. But about 46,000 were referred to external resources: legal, such as the police or the Public Prosecutor’s Office, or social, such as child protection services. And of the 11,761 serious cases detected, 2,277 were an emergency. An average of six a day. “We are talking about a serious risk to physical integrity, a suicide attempt already started, of a child who has just suffered a sexual assault, whose arm has been broken or has run away,” explains Ballesteros.
“When they call, the minors are devastated, in situations of abandonment, loneliness, with a great sense of despair,” warns the Director of Programs. Half of the time, they suffer from their problem on a daily basis; in more than half of the cases, for more than a year. “The average number of students in a school is 600 children and last year we identified about 12,000 serious cases, let’s think about how many schools would be filled,” he exemplifies. This is precisely one of the points that alarms you the most. The average number of cases attended from 2017 to 2019 was 11,462. And the percentage of serious cases that are due to situations of violence, from cyberbullying to bullying or sexual abuse, it has only dropped 2.3 points compared to last year: they account for 52.6% of all calls and in 2019 they were 54.9%. It can be considered stable, they point out in Anar. And it is mainly due to the fact that cases of physical abuse have risen.
“It is very worrying: at a time when we eliminate all external violence, the figures are stable. The increase in physical abuse compensates for the fall in other types of violence, such as bullying, ”says Ballesteros. “It is the worst type of abuse, because it is also associated with another type of violence, such as psychological, for example. It is the main reason for all serious cases: they were 15.8% of the total in 2020, compared to 13% in 2019 ″, he continues. A 14-year-old adolescent recounted his experience: “In the face of anything he did not like, he would get aggressive and threaten to hit us … We would lock ourselves in a room praying to God not to take a knife.” Ballesteros emphasizes the seriousness of these cases. “We are concerned about what is happening and, above all, the increase in psychological consequences for minors, who have been more exposed than ever to physical violence.”
The foundation has divided the year into five periods and has analyzed how the reasons for the consultations have varied in that time: the prepandemic stage, during strict confinement (from March 14 to April 26), with the first departures (from March 27 to April 26). April to June 20), in the new normal (from June 21 to September 20) and with the return to school (until the end of the year). “The consequences of covid-19 have generated great frustration in children and adolescents as a result of the helplessness and despair that explains why many have increased their suicidal ideations and attempts during confinement (a 244% increase in that period ) ”, Says Diana Díaz, director of Anar’s phone and chat, in a statement from the foundation. “They have used harmful emotional self-regulation mechanisms in order to reduce their anxiety, such as self-harm with going back to school (an increase of 246%) or the compensation mechanisms typical of eating disorders, which have skyrocketed coinciding with the first departures (826%) ”, he continues.
Ballesteros points out that there are not many cases, but they are very serious, and that they have a lot to do with technology. The foundation has detected an increase in the problems associated with it: they went from 23.2% in 2019 to 29.9% in 2021, encompassing situations such as cyberbullying, gender violence, child pornography and prostitution, feeding, the grooming (An adult pretending to be a minor to gain the trust of another minor and ask for sexual content) … “There is a practice of universalization of technology among adolescents, so it has penetrated much more in the number of problems that affect them, ”he says. “This was already happening before the pandemic,” he adds. In fact, from 2009 to 2016, suicidal ideations and attempts have multiplied by six and self-harm by 14. “If you are psychologically affected and you find information where these practices are justified, the probability of carrying it out is multiplied”, Ballesteros continues, demanding more controls.
The foundation also asks that more professionals in the area of mental health develop a strategy for the eradication of violence against children and adolescents or the speeding up of the creation of courts specialized in violence against minors, which foresees the child protection law approved in May. Mechanisms must be put in place to protect children, paying special attention to mental health, Ballesteros warns: “Psychological problems remain, and will endure.”
Telephone 900 20 20 10 is Anar’s help line for children and adolescents. The foundation also provides assistance via chat: chat.anar.org