The Covid-19 pandemic has affected us all in many different ways. Its impact upon how we see and cope with our mental health is both unquestionable and unparalleled. Some groups within society have been affected more than others. Notably children and young people who appear particularly affected. Is this all down to covid? or is there more going on here?
Children’s mental health
If you didn’t know it is Children’s mental health week this week. Therefore I am reading an extremely worrying article in the Guardian that highlights the dramatic rise of children suffering from mental health issues. According to it ‘There were 77,390 children who had been assessed as having a mental health need by councils on 31 March 2021, an increase of 25% on the 61,830 seen two years earlier, according to statistics from the Department for Education.’ This equates to around 1500 children a week presenting themselves to local authority social workers with issues.
Something deeply troubling is happening. Of course it would be simple to place the blame entirely on Covid. However I believe there is more going here than meets the eye. I think that the pandemic has in part acted as a catalyst to expose a range of underlying challenges relating to the mental health of children.
An issue overlooked?
So what do I mean? Mental health, especially the mental health of children has been overlooked for many years . Outside of specific cases children are traditionally seen as, on the whole, free from mental health issues. With lots of people assuming that ‘the innocence of childhood’ somehow excludes them. This idea that the majority of children are too caught in playing and discovering to be affected by this type of thing.
There ‘may’ have been something in this, in the past. However, children just do not have so much of that ‘innocence’ privilege in today’s society. More and more, are they exposed to elements of the adult world. Be that, through accessing the internet /social media or being exposed to the constant 24 hour news cycle that is continually beamed into our homes. This may be unintentional but as children are naturally inquisitive by nature and can be very sensitive, they pick up a lot more than we adults may think.
Not having the reasoning or capacity to comprehend what they maybe exposed to, children in this sense are vulnerable. And can therefore be at risk of the early development of anxiety or depression. Indeed any mental health issue.
Growing up too fast
This over exposure has in itself led to an increase of peer pressure at a younger and younger age. Something that was principally associated with teenagers and highschool is now witnessed in primary and middle schools. This is exacerbated by either access to or exclusion from social media. This pressure can impact young minds not disposed to put social conditioning into context.
The nature of bullying has changed massively over the last decade. Moving from something primary physical or at least verbal in nature to one that is now virtual. Any child with access to a smart device is now vulnerable to ‘virtual’ or ‘cyber’ bullying. Indeed they can be bullied by people they have never met or by people who live thousands of miles away. This is now not confined to the realms of the playground or after school.
Home is now not the haven it used to be as this type of bullying can occur 24 hours a day. Unimaginable a scant few years ago. Unimaginable to many adults. Yet its impact can be just as destructive, especially in relation to mental health.
The chances are that children will not always be aware that they are dealing with a mental health issue. They might not understand what is going on and not realise that they can ask for help. They may hide symptoms or pretend that all is ok. This allows for problems to grow and behaviours to become entrenched. This makes treatment all the more difficult especially if issues persist into adolescence or adulthood.And ultimately the whole issue, so much more challenging to tackle.
Playing catch up
The above are just a few examples of problems that, as alluded to, were unheard of up until recently. This means for a significant amount of time parents, schools and policy makers have essentially been behind the curve and slow to catch up.
The pandemic has critically exposed this oversight. Whereby these existing underlying problems have dramatically combined problems arising with covid. Lockdowns, social isolation, school closures are all massive contributing factors in themselves. For them to be then combined with the prevalence of a deadly and highly contagious disease that has spread worldwide.
It is no wonder cases have spiraled. In combination they have formed the perfect storm which has revealed just how inadequate the services available to children suffering with mental health issues are.
Time to make a difference?
There is a lot of catching up to do. With luck and an attempt to see some positives, this could, indeed, should act as a wake up call to all of us. More needs to be done. Any myths or preconceptions of childhood need to be dismissed and a clear regard for reality must be taken.
We can start by really listening to children, understanding how they are feeling and what is really going on with them. It is so easy for adults and decision makers to think that they know best. But in circumstances like this, it is not always the case. Things have changed and are changing all the faster. Yes some progress is being made but more has to be done.
This is a crisis that has the potential to damage an entire generation. It is our duty to use this wake up call as the critical incentive needed to bring about long lasting and sustainable change when it comes to acknowledging, accepting and treating childhood mental health issues.