We welcome more attention to the mental health of children and young people. The pandemic has been shining a light on long-standing problems from well before the pandemic but we urge caution in attributing any worsening of these issues to “lockdown” or “school closures” – this is simplistic, at best. According to a recent review of global research by R. Viner and others, the evidence about the harms from partial or full closures is quite mixed (nuance often lost in media coverage).
THE REAL STORY, ACCORDING TO STATISTICS
A study covered in the review mentioned above, for example, showed that about 85% of children and young people reported no difficulties with being at home during the lockdown, though 37% said they missed seeing friends and family. Another study in the UK (among children 2-5 years old), and in Ireland (4-11 years), showed no evidence of decreased emotional well-being.
ILLNESS AND DISRUPTION: TRIGGERS FOR POOR MENTAL WELLBEING
And even where there is evidence of growth in mental health problems amongst young people in some instances, it is really important to stress that more general aspects of the pandemic such as the fear of illness and uncertainties about the future are just as important as whether schools are open, closed or partially open. A survey by Young Minds, in fact, found a clear worsening of mental health issues correlated to the return to school in September. And, from before that, there is evidence from an Oxford University study that older children and children with special needs’ emotional issues improved in the first lockdown. This was confirmed by two more studies which found respectively that
2) some children and young people find attending school stressful and it is likely that for some of them, time at home with caregivers may have strengthened social support and the sense of cohesion in some families or communities. Another study by the University of Bristol found that anxiety levels in school children actually reduced as the school environment can be a trigger for mental health issues in some teenagers (as many parents already know). This is a long-standing issue that is being overshadowed in the current media coverage of mental health and temporary remote learning in the pandemic.
OPENING SCHOOLS WITH NO SAFETY MEASURES HARMS STUDENTS’ MENTAL HEALTH
As a result of our analysis of the available evidence, we have yet to see any clear evidence that pushing for a rapid re-opening of schools for all (as opposed to, perhaps, immediately giving priority places to young people in specific, difficult circumstances that could be improved by being in school) is the key that will help to solve mental health issues for children and their families.
In fact, some evidence may point to the opposite direction. Particularly if no measures are put in place to make them safer, which would – crucially – reduce disruption and stress from Covid19 outbreaks and periods of self-isolation that will follow, as well as the potential for bringing the illness in the family and hospitalisation and death of parents. And that’s entirely ignoring the unknowns about Long Covid in children themselves.
In addition, opening schools too soon and without more safety measures risks increasing the R, and potentially causing another wave of infections, and potentially another lockdown or partial closure of schools in the Spring, which will cause more uncertainty, economic damage, and potential mental health issues for the whole of society, as well as children. The impact of being in a pandemic and the overall uncertainty this causes for young people is also being underestimated, in our view, in favour of a simplistic “back to school” narrative.
SHAMING FAMILIES DAMAGES THE NATION’S STATE OF MIND
While we recognise that situations will vary, we do not understand why as parents we are being bombarded with negativity in the press about our ability to help educate our children at home while the pandemic is brought under control. Making millions of parents feel like failures, and their children being called a “lost generation” is definitely not conducive to good family mental health.
FUND SAFE ACTIVITIES TO BOOST OUR KID’S MENTAL STABILITY
We can confirm that many of our children, and those of other parents we hear from, tell us that they are concerned about the pandemic more generally, not just about schools being temporarily closed for some and the need to learn remotely for a period. As we said in our submission to the APPG Coronavirus, what our children really need is for the pandemic to be brought under control. In the meantime more opportunities for outdoor play with other children, and potentially some safe sports activities should be allowed, encouraged and funded. These are permitted in Scotland but not in England so we urge decision makers to change that, to reduce the isolation that is undoubtedly affecting children.
POTENTIALLY GIVING COVID TO A RELATIVE WEIGHS HEAVILY ON CHILDREN
As you can read in many of our testimonies on our blog, there are countless children and young people who are rightly worried about catching Covid19 and bringing it home – this is exacerbating existing mental health issues they may have suffered from pre-pandemic. We see this reflected in posts by many young people who are online. In addition, Covid itself can lead to mental health complications in one in five people, and therefore exposing large numbers of families to it via the school system will bring unknown consequences on that front.
UNDER-FUNDED SCHOOLS CAN OFFER LITTLE MENTAL HEALTH SUPPORT
The key issue is that only 40% of school students say that a counsellor is available in their school and only 27% report having had any interaction with a staff member about their wellbeing. We, therefore, argue that it is simplistic to say a rush to return to school will solve this, particularly with no push for more funding to ensure that all pupils have access to the necessary mental health support in schools and outside of schools. And with no efforts to ensure schools are as safe as they can be to avoid further disruption (see below).
KIDS ARE UNDER PRESSURE TO SUCCEED DESPITE ONGOING COVID DISRUPTIONS
We are also concerned about the fact that a typical response to concerns about potential inequality impacts of the pandemic and temporary learning (which are undeniable and need to be tackled in practical ways through more targeted funding) is for some politicians to argue children will need a lot of extra schooling and longer school days for “catch up”. This constant academic pressure being placed on young people, in our view and based on our experience as parents, may in itself lead to exacerbation of mental health issues for some. What children will need when the pandemic is under better control, is more time outside, more opportunities to socialise safely and more sports as called for by the PlayFirst UK group of academics (a call which we endorse).
- We have signed this letter by the Mental Health Media Charter, urging journalists to be more cautious in their reporting.
- North American paediatric psychiatrist about suicides and schools closures
- BMJ letter calling for responsible reporting of suicide in the pandemic
- There is another issue that might be worth considering i.e. whether what people call “mental health” in children is always correctly categorised as such, particularly during a traumatic situation
- Skip the school pressure and help children find resilience
If you are having thoughts of suicide or are concerned for a young person who might be, you can contact HOPELINEUK for confidential support and practical advice.
Call: 0800 068 4141 (9 am to midnight)
The Samaritans tel 116 123 (24 hours)