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How Has the Pandemic Effected our Children's Mental Health?

Alison McClymont is a child psychologist with over a decades worth of experience at the forefront of this area. Keep up to date with her on Instagram 

Well if you read any newspaper today- the answer will range from dire to devastating to outright apocalyptic, but what does the actual data tell us?

Well, it’s not quite apocalyptic but it’s definitely concerning - probable mental health conditions increased from 10.8% in 2017 to 16% in July 2020 across all age, sex, and ethnic groups according to England’s Mental Health of Children and Young People Survey (MHCYP) and a social media survey of over 2000 parents reported decreased mental health and increased behavioural problems amongst 4-16 years olds during the first lockdown.

Early data from England’s National Child Mortality Database for 23 March to 17 May 2020  also raised concerns about suicides among young people aged under 18 years during the first lockdown, and similar concerns have been reported by studies in Peru and Japan. All of this is frightening, alarming and disturbing.

But herein lies the rub, sadly the mental health of young people has been all of those adjectives for a long time prior to the pandemic- we just haven’t done enough studies on it to provide a true comparison. For example- between 2004 and 2017 anxiety, depression, and self-harm increased, particularly among teenage girls. As we know self-harm carries an increased risk factor for suicide, tragically this has meant that suicide figures amongst young people have increased over the course of this period as well. The kids have not been alright for a long time prior to this pandemic- we just haven’t been talking about it enough.

There have also been some studies that have actually shown an increase in mental health during the pandemic. A survey of  8-18 year olds from 237 English schools conducted during early summer 2020, a proportion of respondents reported feeling happier. And a quarter of young people reported in the MHCYP survey reported that lockdown had made their life better. While there was no overall change in anxiety, depression, or wellbeing among 1000 13-14 year olds in south west England between October 2019 and April 2020, those who were struggling in the mid range significantly improved on all three measures. There have also been reports of reduced eating disorder unit referrals and reduced acute care treatments - which returned to pre pandemic rates once lockdown measures were relieved.

So what do we make of this? What do we tell ourselves in the face of all this information?

Well as with all things in this pandemic, it comes in waves. Lockdowns have closed some services, so it appears that patient numbers are reduced when in fact there is just a back-logged waiting list. And whilst people may “flourish” under one lockdown, they may not do so under the second or third.

If anything has been a key takeaway from this pandemic, it is that data can tell many different stories according to the interpreter.

What we do know however, is that this generation of children have had disruptions to their education and social growth the like of which has never seen before, and we must prepare for every eventuality. Studies that look at the long-term impacts of lockdown must be conducted - it is not enough to focus on only the most extreme of cases such as suicide risk or inpatient treatment. We need to consider the wider impacts of the pandemic and how we as the adult generation can best help the generations below us.