The children’s commissioner for England and leading psychiatrists have raised the alarm about young people’s mental health during the pandemic, as figures suggest a sharp rise in reports of sleep problems, eating disorders and self-harm.
A Guardian investigation into the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on children reveals:
Prescriptions for sleeping pills for under-18s rose 30% to 186,000 between March and June 2020 compared with two years ago, freedom of information figures show. They fell for adults during this time.
One of the largest private eating disorder services reported a 71% rise in admissions in September compared with the same period a year ago.
A charity that offers counselling said reports of safeguarding issues were up 77%among a small sample of secondary schoolchildren, in particular self-harm.
Parents have voiced anguish at long waits for children’s services, with one mother considering moving her child abroad for help.
Separate research for the Prince’s Trust found that more than a quarter of young people felt unable to cope with life amid the pandemic and almost a third had panic attacks. More than one in three young people said they struggled to think clearly.
The Censuswide survey of 2,000 UK 16- to 25-year-olds also found that almost half of those in learning worried that missing out on education would set them back for the rest of their life, with more than a third feeling their education had “gone to waste”. The proportion was significantly higher among those from poorer backgrounds.
The stark data is revealed on the second day of a Guardian investigation into the impact of the pandemic on Generation Z – those aged seven to 24. On Tuesday, it revealed that Sage advisers warned the government its pandemic policies could result in a lost generation.
Anne Longfield, the children’s commissioner for England, said the Guardian findings were “powerful” and “really concerning”. She said: “We need an NHS trained counsellor in every school … government plans [for training hundreds of mental health workers to work in and near schools] will only reach a quarter of schools in three years. That is really important but given the level of disruption in children’s lives … it is something that needs to be prioritised.”
Dr Bernadka Dubicka, the chair of the child and adolescent faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said the increase in reported safeguarding issues reflected the college’s concerns over young people “who have had minimal access to education support where these concerns would often be picked up”.
She said: “Self-harm in older girls was on the rise before lockdown; now young people have to deal with the additional stresses of the pandemic including uncertainty about their futures and the financial impact on families.
“The figures on sleeping medication may reflect the rise in emotional difficulties that we have seen in children and young people in recent years. Difficulties in sleeping may be a sign of distress and mental health problems. However, it is important that non-pharmacological approaches are tried first.”
Emma Thomas, the chief executive at Young Minds, said: “These alarming findings suggest that the Covid-19 crisis has had a profound impact on the mental health of many young people. This may be related to fears about the virus, social isolation, the loss of routine and structure, and in some cases bereavement or other traumatic experiences.”
Dozens of parents responding to a Guardian callout said they were struggling to get NHS help for their child. One mother said her teenage daughter was told an assessment for therapy would take a year. She overdosed on antidepressant medication at the end of the summer and the family are thinking of moving abroad.
The mother, who wanted to remain anonymous, said: “My daughter has been on a waiting list for mental health services for 14 months now. Because of coronavirus, everything was put on hold. We were told last month that to get her assessed it will take another few months and after that, getting therapy, around one to two years.
“Last February, a therapist was concerned about my daughter and decided out of her kind heart to offer her weekly phone calls. She was brilliant, but when these sessions came to an end after she was transferred to another unit, my daughter overdosed and we ended up in A&E. Afterwards, the CAMHS [children and adolescent mental health services], GP, social services were in touch but nothing else was done.”
She said that since August the family had been on their own. “I felt so desperate that I was planning to move back to Finland, my home country. I already contacted a school there. Then I thought about flying there with my daughter for treatment.”
A survey of 61 secondary school children from Place2Be, a charity that offers counselling in schools, shows self-harm reports rose 77%, from 48 to 85 students, and suicide ideation increased by 81%, to 76, over the last two months.
Separately, the Priory Group said that following a quieter period during the height of lockdown, enquiries to its private eating disorder services had tripled since April. In September the figures were 71% higher than in the same month last year.
The Oxford Centre for Eating Disorders said patients reported feeling more anxious, with an increase in behaviours related to controlling eating to feel safer amid uncertainty and to compensate for reduced exercise.
Orri, a specialist service for eating disorders, said enquiries in July were 92% higher than in February, before the lockdown. Within six days of lockdown it launched online intensive day and evening programmes so that clients could continue their treatment and progress in recovery.
Longfield said: “Schools have said to me that they are pleased to prioritise wellbeing at this time but they are concerned that while they have requirements to assess, they do not have the funding to provide wellbeing support.”