Children’s Mental Health Week feels particularly poignant in 2021 – coming as it does in the middle of a global pandemic and our third lockdown here in the UK.
This past year has been an incredibly difficult time for so many children. From toddlers missing out on socializing with other children, to teenagers whose prized independence has been summarily curtailed there has been the loss of so many rites of passage and daily routines disrupted across the age range.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists have warned that COVID 19 and its impacts pose the greatest threat to the nation’s mental health since the second world war with as many as 10 million people, including 1.5 million children thought to need new or additional mental health support as a direct result of the crisis[i]. Children of Black, Asian and Ethnic minority heritage have been particularly affected in terms of their mental health as a result of the pandemic. Research published showing the number of BAME under-18s seeking help for anxiety or stress from a digital support service increased by 11.4% during March, April and May compared with the same period last year, while it rose by much less – 3% – among white children that age. (ii)
The pandemic has also placed enormous additional strain on families whether through bereavement, the pressures of home schooling or economic hardship. A survey of parents during the pandemic showed 65% had experienced difficulty obtaining food items, 49% were facing a reduced income and 11% had lost their job[iii].
A recent report highlighted the additional exhaustion, stress and anxiety caused to parents of children with disabilities when there was a decline or stop in the support which was previously received[iv].
Whilst the commitment to reopen schools is right – this is not going to be a “happily ever after” moment. We know from our experience of coming out of previous lockdowns that reducing restrictions and returning to school can be problematic for children and young people. A Young Minds survey in September, just after schools reopened, showed that 69% of respondents described their mental health as poor – which had risen from 58% who described their mental health as poor before returning to school and just under a quarter of respondents said that there was less mental health support in their school than before the pandemic, while only 9% agreed that there was more mental health support[v]
Our own experience of returning to face to face services highlighted that whilst children largely valued the opportunity to get out and about, there was also anxiety and concern about being with others after the period of isolation and lockdown.
The Children’s Commissioners Annual Report on the State of Mental Health services[vi] released only last week highlights that “in spite of progress, services are still nowhere near meeting the level of need and hundreds of thousands of children are being left without help as a result”. This was largely looking pre COVID. We have to question how this system will be able to pick up the impacts of the last year without considerable additional resource and capacity.
The impacts of COVID 19, the consequences of the measures we have taken to tackle its spread and the economic cost of this pandemic will have a significant impact on the mental health and wellbeing of children for many years to come. In light of this we believe it is time to make a fundamental commitment to early intervention for this generation of children
This must include a significant and long-term investment in support services both in and out of school settings so that the capacity exists across the country for children experiencing difficulty and their families to access emotional and mental health support in a timely way.
Training and support for school staff and others to manage and support the challenges children face – particularly with a trauma informed perspective will be vital. With more than 100, 000 deaths as a result of COVID – children will be experiencing loss and bereavement and for them and many others this last year will have been experienced as a trauma.
We have asked children and young people to make enormous sacrifices over the past year and it’s time now to offer a comprehensive long term plan to build a positive future for them.