Thousands of children in North West 'left without mental health help'

Mental health services are "nowhere near" to meeting the needs of hundreds of thousands of children struggling through the coronavirus pandemic, the Children's Commissioner has warned.

Anne Longfield said there have been some improvements but a lack of ambition from the Government is hindering progress.

She said the research, which largely covers the year up to March 2020, reveals a system without the "necessary capacity or flexibility" to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

Children's Commissioner, Anne Longfield

The "cocktail of risks and stresses" associated with the outbreak, affecting education, friendships and home life, appears to have taken a "very heavy toll" on some children, she added.

A large NHS study in July 2020 found that one in six children have a probable mental health condition, up from one in nine in 2017.

Ms Longfield said the current lockdown and school closures are causing more damage to some children's well-being which could last "potentially for years to come".

She said the Government must set out how schools can reopen in the coming weeks, adding: "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."

Esther Oladejo is 15 years old and lives in Kirkby, Merseyside. After she began to feel stressed due to her mock exams, Esther was supported by Action for Children’s Blues Programme, a schools-based early help service for teenage depression.

Since Covid-19 hit, she’s been able to apply the strategies from the programme to life under lockdown.

“I was getting really stressed out and I was working myself really hard. It got to the point where I was forgetting to eat, and it started to really affect me. It felt like I was in a race to keep up with everyone else and there wasn’t any break from it.”

“It was strange at first as I wasn’t used to talking about my mental health and it wasn’t something that I would talk to my friends about”, explained Esther. “I didn’t realise others felt the way I did either, it made feel normal and that I wasn’t going crazy. It was a safe space where we could talk about anything that was worrying us that week."

Current school closures could affect children's mental health for years to come, experts have warned. Credit: PA

In the year before the pandemic, referrals to children's mental health services increased by 35% while the number of children accessing treatment increased by just 4%.

Anne Longfield said a postcode lottery remains around local areas' spending, waiting times, access, and how many children are referred to services and go on to receive support.

But she said improving NHS specialist services is just part of the solution, and is calling for a broader system making use of schools and the voluntary sector.

Imran Hussain, director of policy and campaigns at Action for Children, said the Government must "wake up" to a mental health crisis threatening to "engulf" a generation.

He said: "Nearly a year of lockdowns, fear and anxiety, disruption to education and uncertainty about the future has added to the already shocking numbers of young people who have nowhere to turn for professional help.

We know from our services young people are struggling at home without their usual support networks, having to cope with the pressures of remote learning, family health fears, loneliness and pressure in the home - all the while being bombarded by social media and depressing headlines.

Imran Hussain, Action for Children

"The Government must commit to adequate funding and specialist services to tackle the surge in demand caused by the pandemic and stop a generation of children from suffering in silence."

A Government spokesman said: "This has been an exceptionally difficult year and we are absolutely committed to supporting the mental wellbeing of children and young people who have been uniquely impacted by this pandemic.

"Early intervention and treatment is vital, and we are providing an extra #2.3 billion to help an additional 345,000 children and young people access NHS-funded services or school and college-based support.

"Alongside this, we are training a new dedicated mental health workforce to support children in schools and colleges across the country, as well as giving staff the resources to teach what good mental and physical health looks like."