How has the pandemic affected children’s mental health?
Covid-19 rarely causes severe illness in children, but the pandemic has had a devastating effect on their mental wellbeing and development.
Many are struggling with their education, missing normal activities, and are anxious about the health of loved ones. Research from Benenden Health found that a third of parents have seen a negative impact on their children’s mental wellbeing since the beginning of the pandemic. An NHS Digital survey also found that over half of children and young people (aged 5-22) said that lockdown had made their life harder. What’s more, the mental health effects are likely to last much longer than the pandemic itself. The Centre for Mental Health estimates that 1.5 million children will need ongoing support in its aftermath.
In this article, we explore the issues currently having the biggest impact on children and how parents and loved ones can offer support.
What mental health problems are children facing?
Surveys show many children are feeling sad, lonely, and worried. And in a study tracking the effects of lockdown on family life, parents have reported an increase in behaviour and concentration problems, particularly among primary school children.
Sadly, more children are trying to deal with difficult feelings by hurting themselves. Place2Be, a charity providing mental health support in schools, says cases of self-harm doubled in secondary schools during the 2020 autumn term compared to the previous year, and there was a 68% rise in suicidal thoughts. Place2Be counsellors are also seeing some children as young as five with thoughts of harming themselves. Eating disorders are on the rise too. The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has seen a threefold increase in referrals for eating disorders since the start of the pandemic.
Lockdown has been especially challenging for children with pre-existing mental health needs. A survey by the charity Young Minds found that eight out of 10 said the pandemic had made their mental health worse, and a similar number said they often felt lonely or isolated. Almost a third said they were now unable to access the mental health support they’d had previously.
What’s causing children’s mental health issues?
School shutdowns mean children are struggling with online learning and missing out on face-to-face support from teachers as well as social contact with friends. When schools were open in the 2020/21 autumn term, inspectors found that many children’s learning and development had faltered – for example, many children were finding reading and writing more challenging.
Remote learning is hard for most children. Any adult who’s spent a day in Zoom meetings knows how exhausting it can be. But keeping up with lessons is especially challenging for less well-off families where children might not have enough equipment, Wi-Fi, or a quiet space. For older teenagers, uncertainty over exams is also a big source of anxiety about the future.
Restrictions on usual activities
For many children, activities they find fun, such as sports, drama, and clubs, have been snatched away and this is bound to have an impact on mental wellbeing. There’s also evidence that the number of children not getting the recommended amount of mood-boosting exercise has started to increase. This raises the risk of childhood obesity, which can lead to physical and mental health issues in later life.
Family problems and conflict
Studies show that levels of stress, depression and anxiety have risen among parents during this winter’s lockdown, and single parents, parents of children with special needs and those on low incomes have been worst affected. Of course, children can pick up on their parents’ distress and teachers have said they’re noticing a knock-on effect on behaviour and wellbeing. Before the pandemic, more than 2.2 million children were living in households affected by domestic abuse, drug and/or alcohol dependence, or serious parental mental health issues, and isolation is likely to have made matters even worse for them.
Social media has played an important role in helping children stay connected with friends and family members. But more time online can also mean more exposure to cyber-bullying and online exploitation, as well as encouraging unhealthy comparisons between themselves and others.
What’s being done to help?
Experts are calling for lots more resources to be put into children’s mental health and educational support over the coming years. So far, the government has announced £1bn to fund catch-up tutoring for primary and secondary children and this will be rolled out over the next year. There will also be more grants to charities working with schools, and cash to create online resources for schools that will help support children’s mental wellbeing.
How you can support children during lockdown
Keep an eye out for clues that your child or a child you know might be struggling. It’s important to catch mental health problems early before they have time to escalate. Our article on how to spot signs of poor mental health in children has lots of tips.
Make time to talk. Doing an activity together or going for a walk can help them open up about how they’re feeling. Remember that from a child’s perspective a few weeks can seem like years, so reassure them that things will get better and they’ll be able to go back to activities they enjoy before too long.
Encourage them to express themselves through creative activities, such as art, music and writing. You can find lots of resources and fun activity ideas on the Children's Mental Health Week website.
Speak to the school if your child is struggling with their work or doesn’t have all the resources they need. Resist the temptation to do the work for them! Also check out the BBC’s Lockdown Learning, which has lessons on TV, iPlayer and online, and the range of fun educational resources created by the University of Warwick. If a broadband or mobile data limit is making online learning tricky, it’s worth contacting your provider as many are removing caps or providing extra data for free.
Stick to a routine. As far as possible, keep to regular mealtimes, times for schoolwork and for leisure activities so that there’s a structure to the day.
Make sure children get enough quality sleep. Sleep patterns may have been disrupted during lockdown and this can have negative impact on mood, concentration, and learning. Try to keep to regular sleep and waking up times – teens may love long weekend lie-ins but they’re not great for the body clock. Stop using screens at least an hour before bed as the light they give off can interfere with sleep. Have a bedtime routine. It could involve a warm bath, a milky drink, reading them a story, or listening to music.
Exercise makes us feel good so encourage them to stay active. Read our article on ways to get kids moving.
Finally, remember to look after your own mental health so you can be there for your child. You can find some helpful tips in our article on how to juggle home schooling and your mental health.