Study Finds Emotional Stress at High Among Israeli Students During COVID Pandemic

More than a third of children and teens in grades five to 12 reported suffering emotional problems in 2021, up 10 percentage points from 2019, a study conducted by Bar-Ilan University has found

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Students attend class via Zoom, in October 2021.
Students attend class via Zoom, in October 2021.Credit: Eyal Toueg
Shira Kadari-Ovadia
Shira Kadari-Ovadia

The number of students who report suffering emotional distress on a daily basis has grown significantly during the coronavirus pandemic, a study conducted by Bar-Ilan University presented on Monday to the Knesset Education Committee has found.

Data collected as part of the international Health Behavior in School-Aged Children study found that over the course of 2021 some 35 percent of Israeli students in grades 5 to 12 said they had felt emotional distress. That compared with 25 percent in 2019, before the outbreak of the pandemic.

The survey included 1,200 students in the national education and national-religious education systems as well as Arab schools. They were also asked about their sense of belonging or attachment to their school, which showed a drop to 68 percent in 2021 from 72 percent in 2019.

The number of children who said they felt secure at home also fell to 67 percent from 76 percent in the same period. Those who said they loved their school remained the same at 27 percent. The incidence of children who said they’d been bullied rose to 14 percent in 2021 from 11 percent in 2019.

Prof. Yossi Harel-Fisch and Dr. Rotem Meir, who conducted the study, told the Education Committee that the data on children’s attachment to their school was important, since pupils who feel disconnected were at higher risk of feeling emotional distress or of becoming involved in violent incidents.

“During lockdowns, children are cut off from their friends,” said Harel-Fisch. “Being in a framework is very important, to the extent that this is possible.” He added that in the absence of other frameworks, the involvement of parents in their children’s lives is crucial. “I know how hard it is to wrench them away from their screens, but it’s important to get them involved in activities that will raise their self-esteem.”

Harel-Fisch told Haaretz that the real situation may be more serious than the study’s resulted showed. “The data is somewhat conservative since it relates to children who maintained a connection with their school, not to children who dropped out,” he explained.

During the meeting, data was also presented showing an increase in the number of children in need of psychiatric help during the pandemic. “We have seen a rise in suicidal thoughts, in anxiety and in eating disorders,” said Prof. Doron Gothelf, the head of the Child and Adolescent Psychiatry unit at Sheba Medical Center. He said there was also an increase in the number of children refraining from going to school. “Some children have not come out of the lockdown. They’re staying home,” he said.

According to Gothelf, treatment programs for children in hospitals and in communities are full to capacity, with growing waiting lists. “At the clinic for eating disorders at Sheba, there’s currently a waiting list of 100 children,” he said. “Before the coronavirus, it was 20. These systems were on the edge before the pandemic, and now they’re collapsing. Children in serious condition are clamoring to get to a clinic, but are told that regrettably, there is no room.”

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