Damage to children’s mental health could last for years

Anne Longfield has warned that the damage to children’s mental health caused by the coronavirus crisis could last for years without a large-scale increase for children’s mental health services.

The Children’s Commissioner for England has published her fourth annual report on the state of children’s mental health services in England and examined the progress that has been made over the past five years as well as looking at the impact the Covid crisis has had on children’s mental health.

The report finds that while there has been an expansion of children’s mental health services over the past four years, such was the poor starting point that services are still nowhere near meeting the needs of many hundreds of thousands of children. Longfield argues this is because of a lack of ambition in improving children’s mental health services, despite numerous government announcements on children’s mental health.

The report details a system without ‘the necessary capacity or flexibility to respond to the pandemic’, which has been such a seismic event in the lives of children. The major disruption to two years of education, alongside the limited opportunities to see friends and wider families, to play and enjoy activities and the worry about the impact of coronavirus on their families, will have taken a heavy toll on some children.

In the year before the pandemic, referrals to children’s mental health services increased by 35 per cent while the number of children accessing treatment increased by just four per cent. Furthermore, a large study, undertaken by the NHS in July 2020, found that clinically significant mental health conditions amongst children had risen by 50 per cent compared to three years earlier.

In the report, the Children’s Commissioner calls for the government to raise its ambition significantly to deliver a wholesale change in the way we provide children’s mental health services. She argues the work that has been undertaken over the past five years paves the way – in particular the creation of Mental Health Support Teams which provide a model of integrated mental health care across schools and the NHS.

The Children’s Commissioner also warns that the government’s current plan to roll out NHS-led counselling in schools to 20-25 per cent of areas by 2023 is not ambitious enough, particularly following the pandemic, and repeats her call for an NHS-funded counsellor for every school as quickly as possible.

Longfield said: “Even before the Covid pandemic, we faced an epidemic of children’s mental health problems in England and a children’s mental health service that, though improving significantly, was still unable to provide the help hundreds of thousands of children required. It is widely accepted that lockdown and school closures have had a detrimental effect on the mental health of many children. Since the NHS study in July 2020 estimating one in six children in England have a probable mental health condition, we have had another long lockdown. Sadly, this will be causing even more damage to many children’s mental wellbeing and putting even greater strains on mental health services, potentially for years to come.

“That is why in the short term it is so important the government sets out a roadmap that helps schools to reopen over the coming weeks. In the longer term, the government’s ‘building back better’ plans must include a rocket boost in funding for children’s mental health, to expand services and eliminate the postcode lottery. As an absolute minimum, all schools should be provided with an NHS-funded counsellor, either in school or online.

“We have seen how the NHS has risen to the scale of the Covid crisis for adults. We owe children, who are suffering the secondary consequences of the pandemic, a mental health service that provides the help and support they need.”