When Leah* heard that the UK would lock down, shutting her south London school indefinitely, she spun through a range of emotions. The 15-year-old thought at first that she’d be happy to stay home, she says, but instead “I felt kind of sick. I just had weird feelings.”
Leah’s home life was stable: both parents were employed and no one close to her fell ill. “I didn’t feel anxious about the pandemic,” she says. But she did at times feel sad, suffer mood swings and ruminate over circular thoughts in her bedroom.
Without school to structure her time, she kept strange hours, spreading her work from morning until midnight. It could be stressful trying to catch the nuances of lessons over Zoom and she worried about falling behind. “January was the worst lockdown,” she says on a video call. “You forget what normal life is actually like.”
Instagram messaging was her main method of communication with friends. But if they didn’t respond right away she would start to feel paranoid. “You can see when people are active. It got to me. I kept checking, expecting [friends] to answer.”
In June last year, she emailed her form teacher to say that she was finding things hard. In co-ordination with one of her parents, the school set up frequent calls with staff to advise her on boundaries and coping with lockdown, as well as on exercise, diet and sleep. Leah now winces with embarrassment as she recounts fretting over Instagram likes.
Educators and researchers say this kind of intervention is the best way to keep children and teenagers from spiralling. It is too early to tell what the long-term impact of the pandemic on mental health will be, but there are fears that, without help, for the young in particular it will be profound.
A study by the Royal College of Psychiatrists found that 28 per cent more children and young people were referred to mental-health services in England between April and December 2020 than in the same period in 2019. Eighteen per cent more needed urgent care, which includes assessments about whether they need to be “sectioned” under the 1983 Mental Health Act.
But many schools and charities are implementing creative, evidence-based methods that aim to shield children from the worst effects of the past year. Young people are resilient and most will “bounce back with a good routine with school and family support”, says Lesley French, a psychologist who works at the Anna Freud Centre, a mental-health charity for children based in North London.
For many children and young people, their mood worsened as the pandemic went on. The London-based YoungMinds charity surveyed people aged 13-25 who had a history of mental-health needs; 75 per cent of them found the most recent lockdown harder to cope with than previous ones. Children in families going through financial hardship suffered especially. And for children experiencing abuse and domestic violence, there was no escape.
Among younger children, teachers have observed delayed language development. Some pupils find it difficult to adjust to seeing so many people at school after a long time at home. Michela Biseo, deputy head of the early years programme at the Anna Freud Centre, says babies she has encountered at her sessions “react quite warily” to strangers.
The pandemic may have also exacerbated existing mental-health problems, says Bernadka Dubicka, outgoing chair of the child and adolescent faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists. Lockdown and the NHS’s switch to emergency Covid mode often meant delays in screenings and treatment. “The general rule is that the sooner you can provide help, the less likely it is to be chronic and [the] quicker the recovery,” she says. Lockdowns meant that children were coming in when they were already in crisis.
It would be misleading, though, to label an entire generation as scarred. The range of experiences has been vast and diverse. Some children who usually find school stressful thrived, while others relished the chance to spend time with their families and the freedom to explore their own interests. That children’s mental health and minds are still developing is both an opportunity and a risk, says French.
It helps that many schools in the UK have reacted dynamically and creatively to the crisis. A number have launched initiatives including counselling and peer support, increased play time and, in some cases, shorter lessons.
In the depths of lockdown it was difficult to identify children who were struggling without seeing them in person, says Nicola Noble, co-head teacher at Surrey Square Primary School in south London. But the school had a solution: tracking kids’ anxiety and wellbeing levels through online surveys and phone calls. “We were able to [find out] whether they were worried about mummy being upset, or daddy’s lost his job. You had children who presented as being fine . . . It was through the data collection that we could [see] they weren’t fine.” In one case, staff members helped move a single mother and her family out of their rat-infested flat.
The King’s Cross Academy, a primary school in north London, increased the hours of Dafina Hadri-Ljusta, its part-time emotional literacy support assistant, to five days a week. If a child is struggling, they are referred for six to eight sessions or can drop in. Speaking from a small, toy-strewn room, Hadri-Ljusta demonstrates how she uses a mood lamp to help young children express feelings. They press red for anger, yellow or green for happiness and blue for sadness: “Sometimes when they feel a bit confused, or mixed-up emotions, they press the flash button, and then they have all the colours.”
Meanwhile, the Anna Freud Centre itself is piloting TriSpace, a programme that offers counselling sessions not only to children but also to parents and teachers — both for their own mental health and to talk through worries they have about children. Young people are offered cognitive behavioural therapy to deal with anxiety and low mood, and there is peer support training for older children as well, so the whole community is better equipped.
One of the places where TriSpace is being tested is Keyham Lodge in Leicester, a small state school that caters to children between 11 and 16 with emotional and social needs. Rahi Popat, a pastoral care officer at the school, says he is impressed with the programme’s focus on wellbeing. “It’s so easy to say, ‘Get English and maths done.’ Yes, but our children are coming to terms with a different life.”
Yet such initiatives are far from uniform, and not all schools have been sympathetic. Mind, the charity, has heard from young people who were struggling with their mental health and felt pressured by school to focus on academic work, which exacerbated their problems and triggered bad behaviour. Teachers reacted punitively: one pupil spoke of being put into isolation for a week after stealing a scalpel so they could self-harm. Another was sent into isolation for a panic attack.
This spring, the government pledged to boost funding for children’s mental health. The Department of Health and Social Care has earmarked £79m to expand the number of mental-health support teams in schools and colleges in England from 59 in March 2020 to 400 by 2023, as well as community services such as therapy. The education department recently announced £17m to help train senior staff at 7,800 schools in mental health.
While the extra money is welcomed by mental-health providers and educators, the Children’s Commissioner for England reported that these services have been historically underfunded. Only one in four children and young people needing help could access it, they found, with lengthy waiting lists and uneven services across the country.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, has said the money comes after “years of government underfunding of schools and colleges, which has taken its toll on their capacity to provide pastoral support”. Noble agrees, saying the money is not “a substantial investment considering the number of school pupils”.
Getting this right is key to children’s futures, says Carrie Senior, the principal of Harris Girls’ Academy East Dulwich in south London. During the pandemic, she contacted 300 children who were living in difficult family circumstances or who had previous mental-health concerns. “It’s so important that schools [attend to] mental health. It’s difficult for a child to get a good education if they’re not in a good place to learn.”
For parents concerned about their children, Wendy Robinson, service head of Childline, the counselling service run by charity NSPCC, advises patience and support. “Young people are resilient but they have also been through an incredibly difficult time. We shouldn’t assume they will simply bounce back.”
Leah is now preparing to finish Year 10. With a bit of help from school and her parents, she says that over the past 12 months she has developed some useful life skills which help her to manage her worries. “[I’ve] learnt to be a bit more independent,” she says shyly.
* Not her real name
Emma Jacobs is the FT’s work and careers writer
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