Why children’s mental health should be a priority
Children’s Mental Health Week arrives this year as young people across the country are resuming something close to a normal life and education, after two years of pandemic restrictions and lockdowns.
Educational and social opportunities have been lost and the impact on children’s mental health and wellbeing is likely to be felt for many years to come. Only last week further evidence emerged of this impact, with the BBC reporting that referrals to specialist mental health services for children under 18 leapt by 79%.
In a six-month period last year almost 410,000 young people were referred, suffering with issues including eating disorders, self-harm, and suicidal thoughts. These children are the most unwell and at risk, but these figures also represent broader problems affecting children as they have struggled with isolation and the challenges of returning to school.
Research from the Department of Education has found that the disparities in educational development between children has grown over the last two years, with growing numbers of children experiencing ever more complex and challenging problems.
It also appears that, as we might have expected, it is the children from the more deprived social and economic backgrounds who have fallen further behind.
Capacity concerns for children
Inevitably, it will be in the months and years to come that we begin to see the full consequences of the pandemic on children’s mental health and development. We already know that half of all mental disorders begin before the age of 14 (including conditions such as depression, anxiety or phobias) and three-quarters by the age of 24.
Yet the capacity of children and young people’s mental health services (Camhs) to meet growing demand was already a matter of serious concern long before Covid reached these shores. Matters are likely to have significantly worsened in the intervening two years.
Equally troubling is the growing number of children with probable mental disorders in the years prior to the pandemic. The NHS has reported that the number of children with suspected mental health problems had already grown from one in nine in 2017 to one in six in 2020.
Many factors still unaddressed
While Government projects, such as the introduction of counsellors and mental health support into schools, are to be welcomed, SANE remains deeply concerned that the number of children experiencing mental health problems remains so high, especially amongst girls.
Children’s mental health services are desperately overstretched, with long waiting times for treatment, while the pandemic has only made things worse for those young people already suffering from mental ill-health. Meanwhile, many of the factors (aside from the pandemic-related ones) that may be contributing to these stark and troubling figures, such as the impact of social media on both girls and boys, remain largely unaddressed.
We are in danger of creating a lost and lonely generation, disconnected from themselves, their families and friends. Investing in Camhs should be a government priority.