Experts notice pandemic's mental health toll on German youth

Full Screen
1 / 10

Markus Schreiber

Nine-year-old girl Pollina Dinner poses for a photo at the Arche, or Ark, an organization that supports children, youth and families, in the Hellersdorf neighbourhood, on the eastern outskirts of Berlin, Germany, Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. After two months of lockdown, Pollina Dinner went back to school for the first time on Monday, Feb. 22. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, the Arche has had to reduce their real face-to-face assistance or traditional classroom schooling as an offer for children, mainly from underprivileged families, drastically. Some kids are still allowed to come over in person, but only once every two weeks. (AP Photo/Markus Schreiber)

BERLIN – Pollina Dinner returned to school in Berlin for the first time this week after two months of lockdown. The 9-year-old third-grader was thrilled to see her classmates and teachers again but frets about the coronavirus pandemic's effect on her life.

“I'm not afraid of the coronavirus, I'm afraid that everything will continue like this — that my school will close again, I won't be able to see my friends, and that I can't go to the movies with my family,” the girl said, fingering her blue medical mask and sighing deeply. “And wearing this mask is even worse than all the shops being closed.”

Psychiatrists, psychologists and pediatricians in Germany have voiced growing alarm that school closings, social restrictions and other precautions are magnifying the fear, disruption and stress of the pandemic among Germany’s 13.7 million children and teenagers, raising the prospect of a future mental health crisis.

“We don’t have any long-term studies yet, but there’s lots of anecdotal evidence of a crisis-driven rise in hospitalizations and overflowing psychologists’ practices,” Julia Asbrand, a professor of child and youth psychology at Berlin’s Humboldt University, told The Associated Press.

A recent survey by the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf found that about one child in three is suffering from pandemic-related anxiety or depression or is exhibiting psychosomatic symptoms like headaches or stomach aches. Children from poorer and immigrant families are disproportionally affected, according to the survey.

Pollina, who immigrated from Russia with her family in 2019, worries about forgetting much of her German since she only speaks Russian at home. She's one of 150 youngsters from underprivileged families who, before the pandemic. regularly spent time after school at a youth support program on the eastern outskirts of the German capital.

Arche — Ark in English — is based in Berlin's Hellersdorf district, a neighborhood of drab concrete buildings constructed during the former Communist regime of East Germany. Some children are still allowed to come in person, but only once every two weeks. The rest of the time, the social workers and educators try to stay in touch through video chats while helping their young clients with remote learning.

“Many have completely withdrawn and don’t want to get out of their rooms anymore. They’ve gained a lot of weight, are playing online games nonstop and don’t have any more structure in their everyday lives,” Arche founder Bernd Siggelkow said.