The effects of lockdown on mental health have frequently been in the headlines over the last year, but it’s in recent months that we have been seeing an increasing number of children being affected.
The evidence points to the millions of lives that have been saved by lockdowns across Europe. However, it is also crucial to emphasise that the changes to our daily lives have had considerable side effects, and exacerbated a number of existing social problems.
It has become increasingly clear that this is true for mental health problems among children. To date, our blogs and long read articles have highlighted a range of issues relating to mental health and wellbeing amongst adults since the onset of the pandemic.
Recently, a number of news reports and studies have drawn attention to the rising problem of mental health crises amongst the very young.
As schools return, there is some expectation that this issue could become more visible – as teachers face classes of children, many of whom may have significantly poorer wellbeing than before the lockdown.
Not a new trend
In 2018, the mental health charity Young Minds, highlighted that there had been a marked increase in diagnosable mental health problems among children between 2004 and 2017.
Worryingly, amongst 5 to 15 year olds the prevalence of emotional disorders had risen by nearly half – at 48%.
Emma Thomas, Young Mind’s Chief Executive warned that ‘services remain inconsistent and overstretched – this needs to change’.
These are not the only concerning trends in children’s mental health in recent years.
According to the Millennium Cohort Study from 2018-19, 7% of children have attempted suicide by the age of 17.
Dr Bernadka Dubicka, Chair of the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ child and adolescent mental health faculty, described the findings as part of a “really concerning trend that they had been seeing for a long time”.
According to research from 2019 from Samaritans, the suicide rate for young females is ‘now at its highest rate on record’.
We are seeing really concerning trends in terms of children’s mental health and it is becoming clearer that as a society we need to do more to provide support.
A Growing Problem
There is evidence of a significant rise in mental health problems among children during the pandemic. According to a recent study from The Lancet ‘probable mental health problems reported in adults also affected 5–16 year olds in England, with the incidence rising from 10.8% in 2017 to 16.0% in July 2020 across age, gender, and ethnic groups’.
This is a rise of almost 50%.
Young women have a particularly high rate of mental health problems at 27.2% and this is a key area for concern.
The study notes that: ‘children with probable mental health problems were more than twice as likely to live in households newly falling behind with their bills, rent, or mortgage payments’.
In other words, that the pandemic’s impact on household finances is also affecting children’s mental health.
Recently paediatricians, psychologists and charitable organisations providing mental health support told The Observer that they expected mental health problems among children to surge when schools return.
Karen Street, Officer for Mental Health at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, told the Observer:
’We are all really worried about what we’re already seeing, and really worried about what might be coming. We’re seeing an increased presentation to acute hospitals of children in crisis. What we found in the first lockdown is that things seem to go quite quiet on all fronts right at the beginning, but later there was a really steady and very big surge of young people presenting with eating disorders’.
Earlier this month, the Children’s Commissioner warned that damage to children’s mental health could last for years without a significant increase in funding for children’s mental health services.
The Commissioner also noted that existing services are nowhere near enough to cope with social needs and that a 2020 study by the NHS found that mental health conditions among children had risen by 50%.
Last week, additional funding of £79 million was announced by the government for children’s mental health services. This would be a start in addressing unmet needs when it comes to children’s mental health.
Our Work in the Pandemic
When lockdown began last year, we were particularly aware of the risks posed to mental health.
We were able to quickly move our services online and develop an online mental health hub to support people in the pandemic.
From our Get Active and Get Creative wellbeing services to our IAPT service, we’ve been helping people to support their wellbeing and providing professional support to those whose mental health has been impacted by that pandemic.
Through our peer-led events, we’ve been co-producing activities with service users – so that people using wellbeing services are able to shape them.
We provide services for adults and have been supporting the mental health of parents, grandparents and people from all kinds of households.
We do not work with children directly, though we do work with under-19 Early Help Practioners and the charity Homestart to help families to connect children to the right support.
But we want to highlight the growing problems relating to children’s mental health and the need for better support in this unprecedented situation.
Otherwise, we risk it becoming a problem that will only get worse. The pandemic will have long lasting effects on our society. While the vaccine offers a route out of lockdown and a way to protect health, the impacts on children’s mental health is likely to be with us for longer.
Those who have had their studies, social lives and home lives disrupted will not necessarily go ‘back to normal’ as restrictions ease. We need Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) that are well-funded and well-prepared for the challenge ahead.
Photo credit: Flickr/Eline Rijpers.