Covid’s silent victims: Children in Georgia struggle with depression, anxiety 

Author: Maradia Tsaava, , Photographer: Tako Robakidze

Ana, 16, used to love to spend most of her time outdoors, meet new people, play and have fun. She described herself as an extrovert.

Ana, 16, discovered her personality changed during the lockdown. "I was so into discovering new individuals and their personalities. I would just approach them and start talking. Now I prefer to observe them from afar."

“I couldn’t live without communicating with people, I was very social. When the pandemic exploded into our lives, at first, I couldn’t understand the changes in me,” she says. “After a while, I realized I didn’t want to go out and meet with friends any more…Slowly, my circle of friends shrunk and I discovered I had turned into an introvert.”  

Ana still loves to spend some time with her friends, though she lost her love of meeting new people. 

“Now I prefer to spend most of my time with myself—thinking, analyzing and enjoying just being. I became an introvert and I really like it.”

Physical intimacy, emotional exchange, socializing and having fun is what most teenagers crave, but since 2020, the pandemic has made all of that virtually impossible. 

Before the pandemic, Ana’s sister, 14-year-old Mari, was the opposite of her sibling. She would prefer to stay home with herself, while Ana was always outside.
Mari expected the lockdown and online school to be an easy transition, and had plans to study harder and start working out at home.

The Global Prevalence of Depressive and Anxiety Symptoms in Children and Adolescents During COVID-19 study found that child and adolescent depression and anxiety grew 25 percent globally. According to the analysis, one out of four children is experiencing clinically elevated depression symptoms, and one out of five are dealing with clinically elevated anxiety symptoms. 

No research into how the pandemic influenced children’s mental health has been conducted in Georgia, although psychologists agree the situation has taken a toll. 

“I have at least three times more requests from the parents and children than before,” notes psychologist Mzia Dalakishvili. 

 “Due to these isolating circumstances, children are not able to convey their needs, express themselves. The emotions that they should be able to release circulates inside of them instead.”

Psychologist Maia Tsiramua has found 12-18-year-olds are the most vulnerable, especially the early teen years, 14-18. “The most frequent symptoms are anxiety and depressive episodes. In my practice, the number of suicidal thoughts has sharply increased,” she says.

"I was anxious. I was thinking I would never accomplish anything in my life, since I couldn’t study well. Once, in the winter, I followed my Mom to a grocery store. Everything was so dead, empty, apocalyptic."

Ana’s sister, 14-year-old Mari, was surprised by how hard the lockdown hit her. She was always the opposite of her sibling, preferring to stay home alone while her sister was busy spending time outside. In fact, she was happy when she learned school was moving to Zoom in March 2020.

The challenges and feelings Mari experienced were common among teens during pandemic, according to local psychologists and therapists. "Teenagers are very vulnerable to limitations, so it’s harder for them to overcome this period," psychologist Maiko Nanitashvili said.

“I was not bothered at all. I even made a plan for myself to improve my grading and physical shape,” she said. “But surprisingly, the opposite happened. E-learning was unexpectedly difficult for me. I couldn’t hear or understand at all what was happening in the classroom, I couldn’t follow the classes. Day by day I was more and more behind the schedule. Then I started to miss the classes. The more I missed, the harder it was to catch up. Then I had the fear that I wouldn’t be able to move to the next grade and I had depressive thoughts.”

"Many of my patients’ problems were caused by online classes...Some children had difficulties with going back to live school and socialization afterwards," psychologist Maia Tsiramua said.

While Ana was initially worried about online school, she says, “surprisingly Zoom classes were way more comfortable for me. I could prepare myself a cup of cocoa and teachers couldn’t say anything about it. I didn’t think what my classmates would think of me, nor what I had to wear. This I enjoyed a lot.”

“I had really hard times as a parent” – Ana and Mari’s mother, Irma said. “I want my children to have a diverse life full of education, physical activity and fun and when I see how limited and isolated they are, my heart aches.”

Ana also had some down moments—she recalled one period when she felt very negative about herself, which was a radical change from her pre-pandemic life. 

“Before, I would always be optimistic about everything and during the pandemic I realized I have a pessimistic side as well. Now I address my pain to my favorite instrument, the bass guitar. When I play Smells Like a Teen Spirit, or a song from Metallica, I express my pain.” 

Ana discovered music helps her process difficult emotions. "When I play Smells Like a Teen Spirit, or a song from Metallica, I express my pain.”

But Mari continued to struggle.

“Sometimes I would even stop fighting my negative thoughts. The following semester was even harder for me. I was anxious. I was thinking I would never accomplish anything with my life since I couldn’t study well,” she recalled. 

Rezi, 13, missed the comradery of pre-pandemic life. “ I prefer to greet my friends, to see them face to face and say hello. I missed that. Before, we would play basketball together, but now we could only play online games.”

13-year-old Rezi also had trouble adjusting to life during the lockdown.  Previously a good student, his grades started to slip. Being isolated from friends was especially difficult, he notes. 

“I couldn’t even say a proper goodbye to my classmates, when the online school started. In Zoom… it was hard to hear what was happening in the classroom, I couldn’t follow even my favorite classes…in Zoom everything was upside-down, I couldn’t concentrate,” he says.

"We played online games together, but .. it was not real communication that we had before."

His mother, Eto Japaridze, notes that in the beginning Rezi seemed to be coping. “But then I noticed his character was changing. Rezi was a good student but once classes moved to the Zoom, his grades suffered. I could see he lost his motivation. He was counting the days until the children could return to their classes.”

The collapse of the educational system was one of the leading factors for children's increased stress, according to psychologist Maiko Nanitashvili.

“Children had to move to online classrooms straight from their desks. No one was prepared for this—not the children, their parents or even the teachers. Children had absolutely no assistance from the government, they were left all alone in this challenge,” she says.

The lockdown and online learning meant that teenagers lost access to the thing that usually matters the most at that age: their peers.

Psychologist Maiko Nanitashvili notes that teenagers need socialization and communication. "In these years... we see ourselves through the eyes of others and what others think of us is extremely important."

“What your friends think of you has the biggest meaning in teenage years. During the pandemic, groups of friends scattered. Relationships did move to social networks, but the needs of teenagers to flirt, to support each other, or to even have a conflict, was not met completely,” notes Mzia Dalakashvili, a psychologist specializing in the needs of children and adolescents. 

Nili, 15, spent most of her time in the online world even before she was forced to use Zoom. But when the pandemic hit, she moved to a village house with her family—her mother, aunt, grandmother and cousins—and her love of the internet was not enough to overcome all the changes.

The new environment, crowded house and online studies were too much. Nili had panic attacks and was overcome with a feeling that the whole world was collapsing.  

“Everything that made me happy before vanished—my room, my walks in the yard, ordering the food that I love,” she says. “When the pandemic takes over the whole world, there is nothing that you can think of. Besides, school was tiring. I would lock myself in the room and cry. Now I feel better. Only the fear of school time approaching causes me anxiety. I have to empower myself. I have to improve my grades.”

14-year-old Mari is also determined to take control of her life and her studies this September. 

She even worked with a therapist to help her find ways to deal with depressing thoughts. “It was good to talk to a person who is there to listen to you and give you advice,” she says. “Now I motivate myself more… it’s my turn to wake up and get to work, to compensate for the gaps in the studying process.”

Unfortunately, there are few therapists and other resources in Georgia to help children who are in crisis, according to psychologists and children’s advocates. Country-wide, there are eight state-run Psycho-Social Service Centers, operating under the Office of Resource Officers of Educational Institutions, employing 41 psychologists. The government employs 34 social workers in the country, according to the Psycho-Social Service Centre Administration. 

Leli Kipiani, a therapist at a state-run center, says she and her colleagues have been working around the clock to offer online services to children in need. 

“We have been working non-stop,  without any interruption, providing the full-package of services to the children, but of course based on the regulations - we work online, but for critical cases, we conduct live meetings,” she says. “Plus, our hot-line operates 24 hours a day, non-stop.”

But psychologists maintain it is not enough. “We were not ready for this level of crisis,” notes psychologist Maia Tsiramua. “We are in a position of putting out the fire with one hand and building a house with another.” 

Tbilisi City Hall finances Tbilisi Kis service, which provides assistance for children from Tbilisi. In addition, the government created a suicide prevention hotline for children, although it does not always function. 

Anna Arganashvili, a lawyer at NGO Partnership for Human Rights specializing in children’s issues and needs, agrees that the overall picture of children’s mental health condition is troubling. She noted the lack of institutions for children’s mental health and problems with the hotline.

Partnership for Human Rights even referred to the court in order to command the state to conduct a special plan in preventing child suicidal actions. The court rejected the request. 

In the meantime, parents and psychologists are trying to fill the gap.

Rezi's mother, Eto Japaridze, noticed the changes in his personality during the pandemic and decided to get them outside and moving as much as possible to counter the affect of the lockdown.

Psychologist Mzia Dalakishvili says work with her patients has shown her that often they are depressed because they have lost everything that used to bring them joy. 

The very first step is to let them see each other—at a safe distance, with masks, but let them communicate, let them interact. This is all we can do,” she says, noting that the situation is too volatile to make any forecasts about the future or offer concrete advice. 

Rezi’s mother, Eto Japaridze, decided to try adopting a cat and a dog, with the hope that caring for animals would replace some of the things her two sons were missing.

She also bought a dog, Roko, and a cat, Sisi, to give them something to care for.
The pets had an immediate impact, she says.

“They felt responsible to care for something and I saw the positive outcome right away,” she says, adding that she is keeping a close eye on Rezi’s emotional state. “I will definitely involve the therapist if I notice Rezi’s mental condition worsening.”

Nili’s mother, Eka, says it is easy to understand why her daughter is struggling.  

“We have no idea what tomorrow will look like, so I understand her, I myself feel the same way,” she says. 

To provide some extra support, Eka plans to take Nili to the city every once in a while, so she will have an easier time making friends and be able to use her favorite things. 

“Here, in the village, we are protected from the virus, but it’s clear that she needs other activities as well. I want her to be involved in sports, social activities and communication with the people of her age,” she says.  

“The pandemic happened right at a time when she was going through hormonal and personality changes, but now as she somehow handled this period, I think she’ll do better in the upcoming academic year.”

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