Importance: Emerging research suggests that the global prevalence of child and adolescent mental illness has increased considerably during COVID-19. However, substantial variability in prevalence rates have been reported across the literature.
Objective: To ascertain more precise estimates of the global prevalence of child and adolescent clinically elevated depression and anxiety symptoms during COVID-19; to compare these rates with prepandemic estimates; and to examine whether demographic (eg, age, sex), geographical (ie, global region), or methodological (eg, pandemic data collection time point, informant of mental illness, study quality) factors explained variation in prevalence rates across studies.
Data sources: Four databases were searched (PsycInfo, Embase, MEDLINE, and Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials) from January 1, 2020, to February 16, 2021, and unpublished studies were searched in PsycArXiv on March 8, 2021, for studies reporting on child/adolescent depression and anxiety symptoms. The search strategy combined search terms from 3 themes: (1) mental illness (including depression and anxiety), (2) COVID-19, and (3) children and adolescents (age ≤18 years). For PsycArXiv, the key terms COVID-19, mental health, and child/adolescent were used.
Study selection: Studies were included if they were published in English, had quantitative data, and reported prevalence of clinically elevated depression or anxiety in youth (age ≤18 years).
Data extraction and synthesis: A total of 3094 nonduplicate titles/abstracts were retrieved, and 136 full-text articles were reviewed. Data were analyzed from March 8 to 22, 2021.
Main outcomes and measures: Prevalence rates of clinically elevated depression and anxiety symptoms in youth.
Results: Random-effect meta-analyses were conducted. Twenty-nine studies including 80 879 participants met full inclusion criteria. Pooled prevalence estimates of clinically elevated depression and anxiety symptoms were 25.2% (95% CI, 21.2%-29.7%) and 20.5% (95% CI, 17.2%-24.4%), respectively. Moderator analyses revealed that the prevalence of clinically elevated depression and anxiety symptoms were higher in studies collected later in the pandemic and in girls. Depression symptoms were higher in older children.
Conclusions and relevance: Pooled estimates obtained in the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic suggest that 1 in 4 youth globally are experiencing clinically elevated depression symptoms, while 1 in 5 youth are experiencing clinically elevated anxiety symptoms. These pooled estimates, which increased over time, are double of prepandemic estimates. An influx of mental health care utilization is expected, and allocation of resources to address child and adolescent mental health concerns are essential.