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Children’s Mental Health Week: the clear impacts of the pandemic

Olly Swann

This week is Children’s Mental Health Week, and more so than ever it feels important to shine the brightest of lights on it.

The Covid pandemic has presented a series of challenges for our children and young people, both directly and indirectly.  From increasing rates of mental health problems to concerns about rising levels of abuse and neglect and the potential harm being done to the development of babies, the pandemic is threatening to have a devastating legacy on the nation’s young.

The closure of schools is, of course, damaging to children’s education.  But schools are not just a place for learning; they are places where kids socialise, develop emotionally and, for some, provide a refuge from troubled family life.

Educational provision has thankfully improved in leaps and bounds since the last lockdown, with many schools now providing a full timetable of live lessons, at least for those lucky enough to have laptops.  But concern over the emotional impact of months in isolation is rising with this second school shutdown, alongside new questions about the ‘pressure-cooker’ effect of online learning.

At worst, headteachers fear older teenagers dropping out for good.  At best, it seems to be the drudgery of school without the fun bits (I say this as a father of two secondary school boys!). A recent Mumsnet survey of home-schooling parents found three-quarters thought their children were now more demotivated or disengaged.

Unsurprisingly, there are clear signs the upheaval in children’s lives is having an impact on children’s mental health.  The Mental Health of Children & Young People in England 2020 report which is produced by NHS Digital and the Office for National Statistics, is the official stocktake of the state of children’s wellbeing. It has been tracking more than 3,000 young people over the last four years. Its latest findings, published in the autumn (see graphic below) found that overall one in six children aged 5-16 had a probable mental health disorder, up from one in nine three years previously. Older girls had the highest rates.

Just last week the Children’s Commissioner for England published the fourth annual report on the state of children’s mental health services. Analysing the progress that has been made over the past five years, as well as Covid-19 impacts, it was a sobering read. There were four clear headlines:

  1. Access to children’s mental health services is still not adequate.
  2. Access is improving, but not as quickly as we would expect.
  3. Spending on children’s mental health is slowly increasing, but highly variable, and still inadequate.
  4. There is a postcode lottery around what local areas spend, waiting times for treatment, access to treatment and how many children that are referred to services go on to receive them.

This would be a bad enough assessment pre-Covid; as a future service provision landscape seeking to address such a surge in demand, it would be scandalous not to do something about it. Central government has an immediate opportunity to address some of this with the much-awaited pandemic ‘roadmap’, with the reopening of schools at its heart over the coming weeks and months.

Longer term, Whitehall’s plans must include a significant injection of funding to reflect the scale of the mental health challenge but to also mitigate what could well be the long dark tail of the pandemic. We owe it to our children, each and every one of them.

Written by

Olly Swann



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