“[One] of the things that I think could be improved around here would be having… better access to things like mental health services.”
― Sean (18), respondent in Children’s Commissioner report.
Separated from their friends and peers, children and young people across the UK have experienced great anxiety over the last year about when they would see their grandparents and other family members, how safe they are at school and whether or not the important events they had been looking forward to would be cancelled. Many young people with a history of mental health needs have been severely affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, according to recent research by UK charity YoungMinds.
Over the coming months, it is vital that we as a society do not fail these vulnerable young people. With whole populations advised to remain in their households unless exercising, collecting necessary supplies or caring for others, the extended periods of “lockdown” are one of the most significant public health measures implemented over the last year.
The impacts of this lockdown and related school closure on the mental health and wellbeing of young people and children during the pandemic are becoming increasingly concerning.
Over the coming months and years, these young people will be expected once again to adapt to a “new normal” with the easing of lockdown measures, and an understanding of their experiences over the past year is vital if we are to provide the support they need. Both those working directly with children and young people and the policies enforced higher up should be informed by this understanding.
The pressures of home learning for those in school and university, a growing sense of isolation, a loss of faith in their prospects for the future and freezing weather that disrupts basic routines have all combined to make the current lockdown more difficult to cope with for around three-quarters of young people. Releasing tension or dealing with challenging emotions is what leads many young people to self-harm.
A number of other countries around the world are now beginning to formalise responses to the impact the last year has had on young people’s mental health. Support for community and specialist services is being prioritised by the New Zealand Government, for example. A national psychosocial and wellbeing recovery framework has been published by the government in New Zealand, with a focus on prevention and early intervention upheld through the principles of collectivity, empowerment, community solutions and assets focus.
A rapid easing of restrictions may sound like a good solution, but not all young people support this idea. Further lockdowns in the future pose a real concern for many young people, who are concerned that the end of lockdown is coming too quickly to be effective. The greatest wish for many of these young people is for an end to the cycle of freedom followed by restriction – hope followed by hopelessness.
We need only look to the past to get an idea of the impact lockdown and quarantine can have on children and young people. In the SARS epidemic, for example, 30% of quarantined children later met the criteria for PTSD, with stress scores for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder reported by parents to be 4 times higher in quarantined children than in those not quarantined.
The COVID-19 pandemic has already resulted in negative psychological consequences for some young people, with one study from India suggesting a similar rate of PTSD can be expected in this pandemic, while other studies in China have found an increasing prevalence of depressive and anxiety symptoms. It’s not all doom and gloom, though! Young people are feeling a cautious optimism about the vaccine programme, with the majority believing that their mental health will begin to improve once it becomes possible for restrictions to be lifted safely.
While some young people have benefited from effective mental health support, others have been able to work independently to develop strong coping mechanisms. That said, two thirds of young people surveyed expect long-term negative impacts on their mental health as a result of the pandemic. Many young people have experienced bereavement in recent months, while others are worried about whether they’ll be able to find a job, rebuild their friendships or achieve the grades they had been hoping for.
With so many potential reasons for anxiety and distress, it’s no surprise that our children and young people have been struggling this year, with many unable to pin down a single main reason for their declining mental health. Those most likely to be affected in the long-term will be those who are already impacted by inequalities.
Significant gaps in mental health support have been identified by recent surveys. This type of health-related crisis can impose isolation, a perceived threat, confusion and disruptions, and all of these factors may contribute to potential cases of PTSD in the future. As we navigate the continuing crisis and enter into the long recovery period, it’s more important than ever that support is offered to young people who are feeling worried or overwhelmed by the current situation as a result of existing mental health issues, and appropriate arrangements must be made to support them.
Many young people feel they have not received the level of support they need, though professionals in the NHS, schools and charities have continued to work around the clock to adapt and improve services. Technological issues are partly to blame here. Not everyone feels that virtual and digital support works for them, practically or emotionally. Alongside virtual and digital support, future provision should recognise the value of face-to-face interactions.
Over the coming months, we have a good chance of really making a difference to our situation and advancing our recovery from the pandemic. As we move forward with this, we must also ensure that our children and young people live in a society where they are supported, and in doing so give them grounds for optimism about their mental health.
You can find more information about the issues discussed in this article in the Mental Health range from Need2Know Books, which includes titles on Self Harm, Stress and Depression among a number of other useful topics.