‘I’ve forgotten what it’s like to just be free’

In Children’s Mental Health week we look at the painful toll Covid is having on our children

Reading time: 9 min

“I’m sad today. I have too much work. It stacks up so quickly and I don’t have the same support I’d have in school. I get easily overwhelmed and I got a consequence on my school record today because I forgot to complete a task.”

So says 12-year-old Finn, a year 7 secondary school student battling to cope with the pressures of lockdown home schooling on his mental health.

This week is Children’s Mental Health Week – a campaign to raise awareness around the ever increasing decline in our children’s mental health. Only last week, Children’s Commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, called on the government to raise its ambition in child mental health provision and repeated her call for an NHS-funded counsellor for every school as quickly as possible.

The report found that damage to children’s mental health caused by the Covid crisis could last for years without a large-scale increase for children’s mental health services. A large study, undertaken by the NHS in July 2020, found that clinically significant mental health conditions among children had risen by 50 per cent compared to three years earlier.

The report says that a staggering one in six children now have a probable mental health condition.

Longfield says, “We do not know how far this spike will have long term consequences on children’s mental health, nor do we know the impact of further lockdowns, but it is highly likely that the level of underlying mental health problems will remain significantly higher as a result of the pandemic. There has already been a spike in referrals to NHS services during Autumn 2020.”

Substantive findings show access to and spending on children’s mental health services are inadequate. And although there may be some improvement, services are nowhere near where they need to be – and whether your child actually receives the help they need could be down to a post code lottery.

It used to be said that your school days were the happiest days of your life – and Finn for one is certainly missing school.

‘I miss school’

“I miss school,” he says. “Because I am autistic and have ADHD I need someone there sometimes to make sure I have all the right worksheets or to make sure I have understood what I am supposed to be doing. I work alone in my room at home because my lessons are streamed and I need to be somewhere quiet for that.

“I miss the routine of school and being able to ask my teachers or classmates a question. I feel very alone at home. I have my family there but they can’t be teachers. I also miss my friend Kieran. He is autistic too. We have been together since we were at primary school and he just gets me. He always understands how I am feeling and makes me feel less alone and isolated by my autism.”

For junior school pupil Caleb, aged 7, not being at school is a mix of emotions. “I feel a mixture of happy and sad and it can be confusing,” he says. “I kind of miss school. I miss my friends a lot. My brothers are bigger than me and they don’t listen to me the same as my friends do.

“I see my teachers on my class zoom every Monday. Sometimes they phone mummy too to ask if I am ok and then I say hi to them.”

Both Finn and Caleb are lucky to be in a position where they have parents who are trying their best to support them and their learning needs – while still holding down a job. But not all parents are able to do this.

The situation for families ranges from at best far from perfect to difficult beyond imagining. Many families find the strain of home schooling while working simply unbearable – or just plain impossible. Many children will return to school at different levels in their learning; many will find it hard to readjust; many will have anxiety – as will many parents, exhausted and overwhelmed by this gargantuan task.

Even for the most positive of children things can be hard. Nine-year-old Roxanne says she’s “happy today because I managed to get all of my school work done and that makes me feel good. I really miss my friends though. I see them on class zooms once a week and I can play online with them on my Xbox but it’s not the same. I find it hard being indoors.”

Children are suffering

Mum Bella believes however hard it is for parents, our children are the ones that are suffering the most.

“This lockdown has been a lot harder on the children. The cold, wet weather makes it harder to get outside and the evenings are dark. I think just like adults they didn’t think we would be here again now and it all feels helpless and out of our control.

“They have missed so much school and friendships and socialising are so important for their wellbeing. They don’t have the support of extended family and they miss that a lot. My children all have additional needs so being out of their routine is especially hard for them.

“The pressure on parents to try and be all the things that everyone else is to them as well as their parent is really tough. Sadly I speak from experience when I say that children’s mental health services are critically underfunded and completely overstretched already. CAMHs (children’s and adolescents mental health services) is already in crisis.”


Bella continues, “My eldest son has been threatening suicide and self-harming throughout the pandemic and they haven’t been able to see him. He’s on a six month waiting list for therapy. We’ve had to resort to taking him to A&E in the middle of a pandemic when we’ve been scared that he will attempt suicide.

“The school nursing team are overwhelmed and don’t have the power to fast track him. There’s been such a massive rise in the number of children suffering from anxiety and eating disorders they can’t cope with this. I read this is the biggest mental health crisis this country has seen since the WW2. The government needs to acknowledge this and put extra funding in place to help – or we are going to have generations of people who are simply too unwell to work or to learn.”

Longfield’s findings are similar. “It is widely accepted that lockdown and school closures have had a detrimental effect on the mental health of many children. The government’s 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 can measure a society, and especially a government, on how it treats children,” believes Unite’s professional officer for mental health Dave Munday.

“Often, when it comes to support children are left at the bottom of the pile. As the Children’s Commissioner in England has pointed out, even before the pandemic, children’s mental health services were lagging behind – the government now needs to take stock of the exponentially growing need for these services and fund and staff them suitably, before we have a mental health pandemic and a whole generation of children who will go on to enter adulthood with enduring and serious mental health conditions.

“And yet, this Children’s Mental Health Week, rather than to announce measures to correct the years of austerity that have cut the services children rely on, the government instead announced an ‘ambassador’.

Front line

“Our members work in the front line and have seen the pandemic’s effect on the mental health of both young and old. Over the last decade school nurses have been cut by nearly a third. These and other highly skilled community nurses are not recognised by this government for their great contribution – and the same is true for our community mental health nurses.

“The prospect of one in six children with a probable mental health condition is simply not acceptable. We call on the government to put its money where its mouth is regarding mental health and cough up what’s needed.

“Give our mental health workers and school and community nurses the recognition, pay and the staffing levels they all need to keep our children supported and safe.

“It’s an investment in the nation’s future which cannot and must not be ignored,” Munday urged.

Last words go to Finn.

“I can’t ever imagine school being normal again. It’s all been very unsettling and I have forgotten what it feels like to just be free.”


Two young children tell us how they feel about lockdown

Listen to India, aged 10

Listen to Zack, aged 5


See Children’s Mental Health Week site for some good advice

See here for urgent help

See here for BBC’s children’s mental health and teaching resources


Unite’s mental health nursing members are celebrating #ChildrensMentalHealthWeek with ‘Children and young people in crisis’ on #mhTV

By Amanda Campbell and Jody Whitehill. Voice clips by Hajera Blagg and Taylor Humphris

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