Demand for Kids Helpline rises during COVID-19 pandemic

The demand for Kids Helpline saw a significant increase in the volume of children and young people seeking help in 2020 compared to 2019, with mental health or emotional wellbeing the most common issues for children and young people according to a new study.

Researchers from the Australian Institute for Suicide Research and Prevention (AISRAP) at Griffith University, youth organisation yourtown and the University of Melbourne analysed monthly and weekly time trends of demand for and response by Kids Helpline, Australia’s only national youth helpline.

They found an increase when the pandemic was declared in March 2020 followed by a gradual decline. A second rise occurred in July 2020 when parts of Australia experienced a second wave of infections, followed by another decline more recently.

Associate Professor Kairi Kolves from AISRAP said changes in demand for Kids Helpline aligned with changes in the severity of the pandemic.

“It is likely that this pattern reflects a combination of negative emotional and psychological effects of the pandemic on some children and young people, and difficulty accessing friends and face-to-face services due to movement restrictions and social distancing requirements.

“Whether emotional and psychological effects of the pandemic will be short-lived or whether they will contribute to development or exacerbation of mental disorders is unknown.”

Increased demand was almost entirely via WebChat rather than phone. Most answered counselling contacts were from females and those aged 13-18 years. The number of contacts about mental health, suicide/self-harm, and family relationships increased, with mental health contacts also increasing as a proportion of total contacts. A significant number of young people’s mental health and other concerns were related to COVID-19.

yourtown CEO Tracy Adams noted that information about the effect of the pandemic on the mental health of children and young people remains limited, with most studies of countries with far higher infection rates than Australia.

“The study found, while less exposed to the trauma of mass illness and fatalities than their international counterparts, children and young people in Australia may also experience concern about themselves or vulnerable family members contracting the virus and pandemic restrictions affected almost every aspect of their daily lives,’’ she said.

“The pandemic has likely had particular effects on children and young people with existing mental disorders or other special needs.”

Ms Adams said Kids Helpline provided a critical service for children and young people, especially during times of limited access to face-to-face services and natural supports such as school and peers.

“Kids Helpline remained functional every day of 2020, answering more than 176,000 contacts from children and young people aged 5-25, while doubling its professional counsellor workforce by an extra 100 counsellors.”

The research has been published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.