Children’s mental health crisis: Youngsters pushed over the edge by lockdown trauma

David Cohen and Radhika Aligh
·6 min read
 (Matt Writtle)
(Matt Writtle)

The pandemic’s toll on mental health turned a loving boy into an aggressive and fearful child — and he is far from alone. Here, David Cohen examines the growing crisis

During the first lockdown, Jason was not flagged by his school as having any sort of mental health problem, but this time round is different.

The young teenager, who attends Kensington Aldridge Academy in west London, started to fall apart towards the end of the 2020 autumn term — he would abruptly walk out of class, shouting, kicking doors and punching the walls.

When Louis Levin, the school’s pastoral adviser, spoke to him, he encountered “a new Jason” who was also being rude and aggressive to his mother at home.

“This was a significant change,” said Levin. “Before the pandemic, he was an enthusiastic kid, a bit of a worrier but nothing serious, who loved his mum and had a good attitude.” With the new lockdown announced this month, things have got even worse.

Jason told Levin: “My mum is anxious and depressed and sometimes she spends the entire day in bed. She expects me to look after my siblings but they proper get on my nerves and I refuse to do it.”

Matt Writtle
Matt Writtle

Levin added: “He is angry with his mother but also worried about her. He told me that his father no longer sends money to support them and he worries about that as well. He gets scared because he is having some very dark thoughts.

“We told him to come into school because he’s a vulnerable child going through a lot and it’s frankly untenable for his mental health to be at home all the time.

“Every day we try to build him up and give him hope but he looks crumpled and cries and says he can’t see an end to it. I can’t get a word out of him some days.

“I am sad to say, but there are many, many children in our school like Jason who are struggling with their mental health for the first time.”

Jason is one of more than 500,000 previously healthy children who have been pushed over the edge by the pandemic and who will need mental health support for the first time, say the Centre for Mental Health.

It’s a fast-changing, deteriorating picture, but the charity, using 2020 NHS data and academic research, estimate that 1.5 million children under 18 will either need new or additional mental health support as a consequence of the pandemic — of which one-third are completely new cases.

Leaders of other secondary and primary schools across London who were approached in our special investigation spoke of the unfolding crisis in their schools.

Jeremy Selwyn
Jeremy Selwyn

Andrea MacDonald, deputy head at Beacon High in Islington, said: “We are seeing a very significant increase of children with mental health problems. Normally we make 15 referrals to child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) a year, but this academic year we are already at 25, double the amount of this time last year.”

Emilie Haston, headteacher of Goldfinch Primary School in Wandsworth, said: “We have a large number of children who before Covid did not have mental health problems but since the start of the pandemic have developed one.

“In some cases, you expect it because children live with parents who themselves have mental health issues, but in other instances you could not have predicted it.

“Some children have suffered memory loss of areas of the syllabus they’d already covered. Trauma can do that, it affects memory. And we have yet to see the impact of this lockdown. The worst is yet to come.”

The latest NHS data shows a sharp spike in children with diagnosable mental health problems, up 50 per cent from one in nine in 2017 to one in six in 2020.

Evening Standard
Evening Standard

The stresses of the second and third lockdowns have yet to impact the data, but what is known is that low-income families fare worst, with children in the poorest 20 per cent of households four times as likely to develop problems as children in the wealthiest 20 per cent.

Stephen Scott, professor of child health and behaviour at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience at King’s College London, said: “The level of child and adolescent mental health problems we are seeing is unprecedented, the worst in over 50 years.

There has been something like a 50 per cent rise in children with a diagnosable mental health disorder, much of it since the pandemic. Most people are unaware how bad things are because it is largely hidden behind closed doors.”

The Government and the NHS, he added, are woefully unprepared. “The scandal is that the NHS have decided to spend very little on child and adolescent mental health, which has led to a widening deficit of care.

“The NHS spend for outpatients is about £50 per child per year, which is why CAMHS is so emaciated. Only about a quarter of children with the disorder level get seen by CAMHS with 75 per cent untreated. And that’s in normal times.”

The deficit of care has spilled over into accident and emergency units.

Evening Standard
Evening Standard

An A&E consultant who runs the floor at one north London hospital told the Standard: “We have seen a steady increase in adolescents coming into A&E with mental health crises. After people coming in with Covid or chest pains, it’s the biggest group we see.

“It’s sad because apart from immediate medical support for overdoses or self-harm, there is little we can do. It’s like young people have been hit by a tsunami of issues with a very long tail. They need long-term support to help them.”

Why has children’s mental health deteriorated so quickly? Reasons include being locked down with parents and siblings under pressure from lost jobs, illness, domestic abuse, excessive parental anxiety, lack of usual outlets and overcrowding.

For information and support call Mind on 0300 123 3393

But Ricky Emanuel, a child, adolescent and adult psychotherapist and formerly head of child psychotherapy services at the Royal Free, said there was another critical reason driving the “astronomical increase”.

He explained: “For adolescents, the friendship group is key. It is their oxygen. They need the group to grapple with problems and manage their internal processes and different people in the group play different roles.

“This is so much more than missing their friends. They need them, they are dependent on them and it has to be in person — not just via social media. If you take that away, if you cut them adrift, they can unravel and fragment, which is why you are seeing so many struggle.”

  • The names of the children in this article have been changed

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