There are concerns that child mental health inequalities may have widened during the COVID-19 pandemic. We investigated whether child mental health inequalities changed in 2020/2021 compared with prepandemic.
We analysed 16 361 observations from 9272 children in the population representative UK Household Longitudinal Study. Child mental health was measured using the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (SDQ) at ages 5 and 8 years in annual surveys 2011–2019, and at ages 5–11 years in July 2020, September 2020 and March 2021. Inequalities in cross-sectional SDQ scores among 5 and 8 year olds, before and during the pandemic, were modelled using linear regression. Additionally, interactions between time (before/during pandemic) and: sex, ethnicity, family structure, parental education, employment, household income and area deprivation on mental health were explored.
A trend towards poorer mental health between 2011 and 2019 continued during the pandemic (b=0.12, 95% CI 0.08 to 0.17). Children with coupled, highly educated, employed parents and higher household income experienced greater mental health declines during the pandemic than less advantaged groups, leading to narrowed inequalities. For example, the mean difference in child SDQ scores for unemployed compared with employed parents was 2.35 prepandemic (1.72 to 2.98) and 0.02 during the pandemic (–1.10 to 1.13). Worse scores related to male sex and area deprivation were maintained. White children experienced worse mental health than other ethnicities, and greater declines during the pandemic.
Mental health among UK 5 and 8 year olds deteriorated during the pandemic, although several inequalities narrowed. Interventions are needed to improve child mental health while ensuring inequalities do not widen.