Our duty to all children in this pandemic – Anne Longfield

DURING my six years as Children’s Commissioner for England, mental health has been the issue most often raised with me by children.

Schools will remain closed until at least March 8, Boris Johnson confirmed this week.
Schools will remain closed until at least March 8, Boris Johnson confirmed this week.

Even before the Covid crisis, we had an epidemic of children’s mental health problems.

The causes are varied, ranging from the pressures of expectation at school, to the challenges of navigating the social media world which plays such a large part in many children’s lives.

Sadly, the pandemic has made things even worse for many children.

The lockdown is said to be taking its toll on the mental health of children according to Anne Longfield, the Children's Commissioner.

An NHS survey published last July showed that one in six children in England have a probable mental health condition.

This unprecedented rise seems likely to have come about following the first long lockdown in March 2020. Since then we have, of course, entered another lengthy lockdown.

I don’t think that this staggering statistic will be news to many families, or to children themselves.

For many children, the Covid lockdown has turned their lives upside down – major disruption to two years of education, extremely limited opportunities to see friends and 
wider families, to play and enjoy activities.

Anne Longfield is the outgoing Children’s Commissioner for England. She’s from Otley.

As one child told me recently: “Lockdown has not helped with my mental health, it’s emotionally draining, like I’m always tired and I’ve got a constant headache.”

Alongside these challenges, many children are worried about the impact of Covid on their own families – many have relatives who have been taken
ill or died, or who have parents have lost their jobs or are struggling financially.

Taken together, this cocktail of risks and stresses is bound to take very heavy toll on many children.

At the moment we don’t know yet how widespread or long-lasting these problems are, but it is likely that the level of underlying mental health problems will remain significantly higher as a result of the last year.

Boris Johnson's approach towards schools in the lockdown continues to be called into question.

It is more important than ever then that we have a children’s mental health service that can provide the help and support children need. This week I published a report looking at those services are delivering for children, and the good news is that there has been an expansion of services over the past four years.

However, such was the poor starting point that services are still a long way off meeting the needs of hundreds of thousands of 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.

Only around one in four children who needed help received it and last year only 20 per cent of children referred to services started treatment within four weeks.

Spending on children’s mental health is slowly increasing, but most areas are spending less than one per cent of their overall budget on children’s mental health and 14 times more on adult mental health services than on services for children.

There is also a postcode lottery around what services are available where.

Given the new pressures on children’s mental health as a result of the Covid crisis, I think there needs to be much greater ambition from the Government and the NHS about meeting what children will need. There are two immediate tasks.

The first is to tackle one of the driving causes for the rise in the number of children suffering from anxiety and depression – the closure of schools to all but the most vulnerable.

It is now incumbent on the Government to meet the Prime Minister’s aim to have schools back in early March.

I want to see a roadmap for how we get there, because it won’t happen by magic, and school staff, parents and children all deserve to be kept informed of the progress towards achieving this.

The second is for the Government’s ‘building back better’ plans to include a rocket boost in funding for children’s mental health, to expand services and eliminate the postcode lottery.

I hope local NHS leaders in Yorkshire will prioritise children’s mental health spending and services.

I’m pleased that Hambleton, Richmondshire, Whitby and Wakefield are among the top places in the country when it comes to providing good children’s mental health services.

However, East Riding is amongst the worst.

As an absolute minimum, I also want to see all schools across the country provided with an NHS-funded counsellor, either in school or online.

I have long argued that introducing counsellors to all schools will make it easier to deal with emerging problems with children’s mental health before they reach crisis point.

In the end it helps children and saves money, given the enormous costs of treating advanced mental health problems.

In fact, one of the few positive consequences of the pandemic has been the realisation that some things can be done well remotely, including counselling.

Remote counselling could make it easier for schools to share counsellors, cutting costs and allowing for sessions outside school hours.

We are now almost a year into this crisis. I believe one of its likely lasting legacies of Covid will be an increase in children’s mental health problems.

The NHS is under huge pressure, but we have seen how services and the dedicated work of our health professionals have risen to the scale of the Covid crisis for adults.

We now owe children, who are suffering so many secondary consequences of the pandemic, a mental health service that provides the help and support they need, when they need it.

* Anne Longfield is the outgoing Children’s Commissioner for England. She is from Otley.

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