The government needs to think and spend big on children’s mental health

Student working on laptop
Photo credit: Elaine Hills

After a punishing 2020, no-one was dreaming of a Cutdown Christmas nor wishing loved ones a Happy New Lockdown, but that’s where we found ourselves. In Brighton and Hove, as Covid rates exploded, and with major uncertainty around the new strain, the council made the difficult decision to move tuition online for most primary school pupils a day before the government followed suit. Saving lives and protecting residents’ health had to come first. By then, most secondary students were contemplating a new term in their bedrooms.

Home learning has turned the world upside down for children and young people. My teenage daughter may enjoy that extra hour in bed, but it doesn’t compensate for being isolated from her friends and having to navigate an increasingly unsure world from behind a closed door.

Covid has added to the many challenges our children face growing up, putting further strain on their mental health and wellbeing. Across the UK, mental health services remain underfunded and overstretched as demand soars. While expenditure may have gone up, this has not been enough to meet the growing need. Charities such as Childline and YoungMinds are reporting a surge in calls from children and young people, many feeling isolated, anxious and scared due to the changes brought about by the pandemic. The BMJ has identified meeting the backlog of physical and mental healthcare as one of the biggest challenges of 2021.

A survey into the mental health of children and young people after the first lockdown found the number of 5-to-16-year olds in England suffering from probable mental health problems jumped from 11% in 2017 to 16% in July 2020. And a study into young people’s mental and emotional health released late last month found that lower family income compounds the effects of the Covid lockdown on mental wellbeing even further. With an estimated 120,000 pushed into poverty due to the pandemic, the study recommends a £650m package to schools for mental wellbeing funding and an increase in mental health teaching in schools.

Deep concerns exist around the mental consequences of Covid for children forced to spend more time in homes where there is a threat of domestic abuse. While those considered vulnerable can still attend school, not all do. And sadly, many children will be suffering the effects of bereavement.

Children's Mental Health Week logo
Image credit: Children’s Mental Health Week

Why do we need a Children’s Mental Health Week?

It’s under this dark and lingering cloud that we find ourselves in Children’s Mental Health Week (1-7 February). More than ever before, we need to reflect on the extra help and support that children may need at this difficult time. One local primary teacher told me her Year 5 children will be marking the week and expressing themselves by dressing up and creating silly hairstyles in one of their Zoom lessons. The purpose is to provide a springboard into getting children to chat about how they are feeling, and for teachers to consider any extra emotional support some children may need.

While Children’s Mental Health Week reminds us to stop and reflect on how children are feeling, support needs to be there all year round and issues detected early. Helping children and young people now could prevent problems from becoming more serious through adolescence and into adulthood.

Mental health stigma persists and continues throughout people’s lives. If they are to cope with the scarring of the past year and the extra mental demands of living in a post-Covid society, we must talk about mental health more so children find it as easy as talking about their physical health, and embed that approach into society.

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While work is ongoing, it’s clear it won’t stretch far enough. Children’s mental health commissioner Anne Longfield says mental health services do not have the capacity to cope with the impact of the pandemic on children. Even before Covid, we saw a massive rise in children’s mental health problems. Services have improved, but not to the extent needed to provide hundreds of thousands of children with the help they desperately need. Months of on-off learning from home is likely to further exacerbate this shortfall.

Our young people deserve first-class support to help them take their first steps out of lockdown and the Covid crisis. We need to plan now for the aftermath and expand mental health services to whatever level is needed, to help our children now and when they emerge from their bedrooms and out into the world.

Children’s Mental Health Week is an opportunity to start some meaningful conversations, but for the sake of the wellbeing of future generations, it must not stop there.

Elaine Hills is a Green Party councillor in Brighton and Hove. She is deputy chair of the council’s Children, Young People and Skills Committee; chair of the Corporate Parenting Board; and a member of the Environment, Transport and Sustainability Committee.

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