Lockdown has led to a 50 per cent rise in children with mental health problems, NHS data suggests, amid warnings that isolation has been “toxic” for Britain’s youth.
National research on more than 3,000 families found one in six children were likely to be suffering mental health problems – up from one in nine three years ago.
Experts said the statistics were “alarming”, showing widespread anxiety among a generation whose lives had been blighted by lockdown. Children were more likely to be suffering from a range of problems including anxiety, depression and phobias.
The study is based on face-to-face interviews with 3,570 children and young people in 2017, which were followed up online in July this year when they were aged between five and 22.
Tamsin Ford, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, said: “We do know that loneliness is very toxic and social isolation is very toxic for mental health. The amount of change that children and parents reported in the survey, and our own experiences of the pandemic, would suggest very strongly that changes must relate to that.”
The Children’s Commissioner urged the Government to take urgent action to tackle the crisis, describing the figures as “extremely alarming”.
The Mental Health of Children and Young People in England 2020 report was published on Thursday by NHS Digital, the Office for National Statistics, the National Centre for Social Research, the University of Cambridge and the University of Exeter.
It found that 43 per cent of those aged 11 to 16 said lockdown had made their lives worse, with the highest figures among those assessed as having a probable mental health disorder.
Researchers asked parents and children a series of questions before categorising the likelihood of a mental health disorder. Parents of those aged five to 16 were quizzed, along with children aged 11 to 16 and young people aged 17 to 22.
The rise in probable disorders affected young boys and girls more or less equally, with boys aged five to 16 with a probable disorder increasing from 11 per cent in 2017 to 17 per cent in July, and girls from 10 per cent to 15 per cent.
Among older age groups aged 17 to 22, young women were more likely to be affected than young men. In this group, 27 per cent of young women and 13 per cent of young men were identified as having a probable mental disorder.
Anne Longfield, the Children’s Commissioner for England, said: “This dramatic increase in the number of children struggling with mental health problems, worsened by the Covid crisis, is extremely alarming. It should shock the Government into immediate action to tackle a growing epidemic.
“While there have been some welcome improvements in children’s mental health services over recent years, clearly the scale of the problem is getting worse and what has been promised is just not enough.”
She urged the NHS to “radically upscale” plans for mental health, saying every school needed an NHS-funded counsellor.
Dr Bernadka Dubicka, of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “It’s deeply distressing to see such a sharp increase in the number of young people living with a mental illness, more so as lockdown and poverty has made many of their lives significantly worse.
“We are now seeing more patients needing emergency or urgent treatment because they’ve become so ill while waiting to be seen. We need to see greater availability of services for children and young people in crisis.”
Imran Hussain, of Action on Children, said: “These are truly shocking figures that could have profound and lifelong consequences for this generation of children, the NHS and society.
“The mental health legacy of coronavirus is a ticking time-bomb we need to defuse now to lessen the pain, anguish and the need for more intensive support further down the line. Our frontline workers tell us the crisis has damaged the mental health of over three-quarters of the children and young people they support, with some experiencing night terrors, bed-wetting, self-harm and outbursts of anger.”
Emma Thomas, the chief executive of the YoungMinds charity said: “This alarming research shows the profound effect that Covid-19 has had on children and young people’s mental health. The pandemic has put a huge strain on parents and carers, which has had a knock-on effect on children, and families that have struggled financially have been particularly badly hit.
“This research must lead to decisive action from the Government. Schools urgently need additional funding to enable them to commission mental health support, and the NHS and charities must have the resources to provide help to all those who need it. With months of uncertainty ahead of us, there is absolutely no room for complacency.”
Professor Prathiba Chitsabesan, the NHS England associate national clinical director for children and young people’s mental health, urged youngsters to seek help if they need it, saying: “Simple steps like getting enough sleep, talking to friends or family and ensuring your child has a simple routine can make a huge positive difference.
“And the NHS, children’s services, schools, colleges and the voluntary sector are working together to provide a range of support including 24/7 crisis support lines, face to face, telephone or digital appointments and support in schools so issues can be identified and help offered sooner.”