The impact of COVID-19 has been felt, in different ways, by every corner of society. For children and young people perhaps the most significant change has been the period of school closures as part of a national lockdown, not just in the UK but in many countries across the world.
While the most obvious consequence of this is the likely negative effect on the quality of learning, and educational progress, the ripple effect of disengagement, isolation and enhanced anxiety has impacted child and adolescent mental health in ways that are likely to have a longer term impact. Given that child wellbeing has been declining since 2009, this situation has the potential to cause great harm.
The concerns of parents and carers
In a recent study by Young Minds, 67% of parents and carers surveyed reported concerns about the long-term impact of COVID-19 on their child’s mental health. While most children are likely to have experienced some difficulties in coping with the events of 2020, 25% of the study’s respondents whose children received mental health support in the previous three months highlighted that this support was very much still needed, but no longer accessible.
The guidance provided by the NHS around caring for children and young people during this time stresses the importance of parents and carers looking after their own wellbeing during this time. However, with 66% of respondents in the Young Minds study sharing that COVID-19 has had a negative impact on their own mental health, it appears to be extremely difficult for these adults to attach their proverbial oxygen masks before assisting those around them.
Exploring the symptoms
The worry and concern being felt by children and young people can manifest in different ways. Physical symptoms might include tummy ache, while emotionally they may appear more vulnerable or demonstrate behaviour changes. Infants and young children in particular may not have a comprehensive understanding of what’s going on for example, but will be able to sense a strange atmosphere and disrupted routine, which can make them feel unsettled and more likely to behave differently or cry more often.
In July 2020 Childline reported a 37% rise in children aged 11 and under reaching out to the charity for help in relation to mental and emotional health issues, during the lockdown period. With one in eight children aged 5-19 having a diagnosable mental health condition, the Children’s Society have expressed concerns about COVID-19 exacerbating their symptoms and struggles.
Young Minds research with young people who have a history of mental health needs showed a worrying 80% of respondents agreed that the pandemic had made their mental health worse. In fact, 41% said “much worse” – a figure that rose over the course of lockdown. Despite the fact that 71% had stayed in touch with friends, almost 90% had felt lonely or isolated during lockdown, and combined with a loss of motivation without the structure of school, and perhaps a loss of coping mechanisms, its not difficult to see how the situation has become so stark. In addition, the Children’s Society have highlighted how the lack of autonomy that adolescents in particular are used to having could be damaging.
Considering the wider issues
While concerns about the global pandemic, catching up at school, and the health of family and friends are having a significant impact on children’s mental health, the COVID-19 crisis is also linked to a rise in adverse childhood experiences, compounding poor mental health. A recent report showed how support workers have dealt with both higher rates of domestic abuse, and child neglect.
A lack of digital access has made home schooling far more difficult for some, and those struggling financially, either due to COVID-related job losses or by living in an already difficult situation exacerbated by the pandemic, have sometimes had to cope with hungry children due to a shortage of food. Not only does this impact on children’s ability to learn, but to survive and thrive more broadly, and this painful knowledge puts an additional strain on parents and carers. During the 10 week national lockdown in the UK, there was a 77% rise in families accessing mental health support.
Its not only support workers who are concerned about the long-term impact of poor mental health however, but economists too. With 50% of mental health disorders starting by the age of 14, and 75% by age 24, these young people who grow into adults with depression are four times more likely to be not in employment, education or training (NEETs). This is in comparison to adults who do not experience depression, who are also less likely to use health services, receive disability benefits, and die prematurely.
At a time when mental health is and must be under the microscope of health and education professionals, as well as wider society, children and young people in particular need as much support as possible.
Responding to individual needs
Despite reports of children being removed from some mental health support waiting lists during the COVID-19 crisis, a number of NHS trusts have been innovative in adapting their support services to ensure children and young people remain listened to and looked after during this time.
There have been virtual consultations, e-clinics and direct helplines established at record speed by dedicated professionals, who recognise the importance of engaging with young people online via an app, or in ways more accessible to them, particularly as many have been experiencing poorer wellbeing due to feeling disconnected.
While these efforts will be further supported by news that schools will need to teach mental wellbeing from September 2020, the chronic underfunding of child and adolescent mental health services will be a burden still felt by many.
In a recent statement, as the UK prepares for all pupils to be back at school by September 2020, Chief Medical Officer Professor Chris Whitty highlighted the “overwhelming” evidence of the long term negative impact school closures could have on mental and physical health. While this is true for many, much of the rhetoric around the mental health impact of the recent months has ignored those that have adapted well and even preferred the safety of a home environment. For those who typically find school a difficult place in while to be or to learn, especially is this is linked to mental health conditions, or perhaps SEND, in some cases they will have experienced improved symptoms, reduced anxiety or a better sense of overall mental wellbeing. These are perhaps the children who will need the most support on return to the classroom.
The New Normal
As the Department for Education (DfE) pledges £8 million for the Wellbeing for Education Return programme, psychologists who are part of the project, including Professor Peter Fonagy, CEO of the Anna Freud Centre, warn that September may bring the “toughest (school year) that teachers and pupils will have ever faced.”
The programme is an encouraging move alongside multi-sector calls for greater support, including by the Beyond Tomorrow campaign calling on government to ensure access to mental health services for families and young people, assistance for schools and professionals, and a long-term commitment to helping mental health needs beyond the pandemic.
What the new school term will actually look like, how phased returns, blended learning, or local lockdowns may come into play, remains to be seen at this stage. What is certain is that the period of school closures, despite many hubs remaining open to welcome the children of key workers as well as those from disadvantaged backgrounds, has had a significant impact on mental health. The support needed to adapt to the new normal cannot be underestimated, and must be a priority for school leaders and health and social care partners, as well as policymakers.
This article was written by Lauren Powell, IG Schools Portfolio Lead
The Child Mental Health in Schools event this December will provide a unique and timely opportunity for participants to understand and effectively tackle the growing pressures on the education system to meet the rising mental health needs of pupils.
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