Coronavirus causing ‘crisis on top of crisis’ for children’s mental health

UK sector was struggling to cope with demand even before pandemic

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Coronavirus is exacerbating a crisis in Britain’s child mental health sector as it struggles to cope with increasing demand, experts said.

Psychiatric services for young people were already under strain pre-pandemic due to government cuts and a dearth of trained nursing staff, the UK's parliamentary education committee heard on Tuesday.

Speaking to MPs, Dr Bernadka Dubicka, chairwoman of the Royal College of Psychiatrists' child and adolescent faculty, described the situation as a "crisis on top of the crisis".

Reports in November 2020 showed demand for child adolescent mental health services increased by a fifth year-on-year to its highest level, Dr Dubicka said.

The amount of time spent on mobile devices has spiked following lockdown. Getty
The amount of time spent on mobile devices has spiked following lockdown. Getty

“In terms of what we are seeing on the ground, in November, benchmarking reported the greatest ever demand for child adolescent mental health services and specialist services, and that was up 20 per cent in the year before,” she said.

“There is huge demand and we have an increase in prevalence and on top of that we were struggling to recruit staff prior to the pandemic.”

A National Health Service study in July showed sleep issues in children more than doubled from a year earlier. Loneliness increased by 63 per cent while self-harming rose by 27 per cent.

These figures are the best available data on the effect of lockdown on young people, Dr Dubicka said.

“One of the things that we've been calling for is for the government to commit to regular prevalence surveys so we know we can map out exactly what's happening to our children and young people,” she said.

Catherine Roche, chief executive of the Place2Be charity, said the increase in the “level of need” was worrying.

“We are hearing after we returned from the first lockdown in September of more severe issues in secondary schools, so those national stats are playing out on the ground.”

The committee heard that news stories are heightening anxiety among young people who fear being unable to catch up with school work after months out of the classroom.

Phrases like ‘lost generation’ and ‘catch up’ are damaging, said Dr Alex George, the UK’s youth mental health ambassador.

“I've actually had that echoed in messages across social media with a lot of concern from young people asking: ‘Am I part of this lost generation and what does it mean for our futures?’”