Children in Scotland have struggled with increased stress, anxiety and mental health issues during the pandemic, a survey of school support workers has found.
They warn many are failing to get the specialist support they need, according to research into how they are coping after lockdown.
The study reveals deepening fears for pupils struggling with stress and mental health issues but forced to wait up to three years for referrals.
Barnardo’s, who commissioned the work, said the results reveal 94% are more worried and stressed now than before Covid and 80% fear children do not have access to the appropriate level of support to ease mental health needs.
The leading charity which has specialist practitioners working in 400 schools across Scotland carried out the review in October and asked how children were after pupils returned to school in August.
Almost two thirds of staff identified anxiety as the most significant well-being issue affecting children. However, 78% of staff warned children and young people have no access to the appropriate supports to address their mental health issues.
Martin Crewe, director of Barnardo’s Scotland, said: “We know that lockdowns and wider restrictions have had a significant impact on children, young people and families, with our staff reporting worsening worries, anxieties and mental health for children and young people now than pre-pandemic.”
He said the impact of the pandemic on children’s mental health is reflected in the numbers being referred for specialist support.
However, many referred to Child & Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) are waiting too long. Crewe said: “It’s essential we develop more early help and community-based supports, which both compliment and reduce the pressure on CAMHS provision, to reach young people at the earliest point of need.
“It is also hard for children and young people to recover if the adults caring for them are stressed and overwhelmed.”
The charity’s research suggests 40% of Barnardo’s school support staff believe there has been a focus on the well-being of young people, rather than attainment, on the return to school.
Almost 80% felt that children and young people were anxious about their exams and felt under pressure to catch up.
Their greatest overall concern, however, was the mental health and wellbeing of children, with 76% believing this was the most worrying issue for young people at this stage of the pandemic, ahead of poverty, school and relationships.
Financial difficulties were also identified as a significant issue, with 83% stating that more families needed financial help now than pre-pandemic.
Changes to Universal Credit was cited, as 90% of the school support staff claimed it was causing distress among families, with two thirds identifying ongoing food poverty and hunger as a concern.
An award-winning Sunday Post investigation 14 months ago exposed rising concern among health professionals about the ability of child psychiatric care services to cope with growing mental health issues among children and young people.
In October, we revealed that, despite ministerial pledges, the waits had got longer, according to experts.
Barnardo’s has repeatedly called for increased investment in holistic family support services to support families who need help and this includes practical support with addressing the impact of poverty.
“The Whole Family Wellbeing Fund recently announced by the Scottish Government is a welcome step, but we need to see it achieve a step up in services available and become a long-term commitment to ensure family support is universally available,” Crewe added.
“As a matter of urgency, we need to ensure there is sufficient, appropriate, mental health and wellbeing support available in all schools and communities to support this generation of children and young people when they need it the most.”
Within the report findings, staff also recognised the positive impact that getting outdoors and connecting with nature during their interactions with children had on young people’s wellbeing, with therapeutic outdoor learning being a key wellbeing tool Barnardo’s actively engages in with young people across Scotland.
Last year, we spoke to parents whose children had taken their own lives after struggling with mental health and, in October, we returned to those families to ask them if they had seen any positive changes in mental health support. Instead they spoke of dashed hopes as reforms stalled.
Freda Douglas, whose daughter Evie died in 2014 at 21 after being failed by mental health services in Lothian, said: “In the seven years since my daughter’s death, frustration has been the biggest issue.
“After the fight we went through, taking the case to the ombudsman and having an investigation, recommendations were made and I thought, ‘We are getting somewhere, we are making an impact’.
“But I don’t see evidence that the recommendations were implemented. There’s a lot of talk, lots of meetings, groups and strategies, but when it comes to the action, what happens? We seem to talk about change but don’t get around to acting on it.”
Lisa Bond, whose 13-year-old daughter Aaliyah took her own life six years ago, also spoke of her frustration.
She said: “It’s devastating to know nothing has changed. After everything we went through –including a significant case review – no lessons have been learned.”
“When Aaliyah was seeing a school psychologist that person was covering three schools. There really should be somebody in every school, just like you would have a nurse. There needs to be someone children and families can go to in a crisis.
“Things are not getting any better and it’s really disappointing.”
The Barnardo’s report came as figures show almost 21,000 children up to age 19 are on anti-depressants, almost double since 2011.
Scottish Conservative children’s shadow minister Meghan Gallacher said: “These figures are shocking and unacceptable in every way. I’ve repeatedly raised concerns about access to services, waiting lists of years and the lack of specialist counsellors and support staff.
“If the Scottish government continue to ignore these concerns the next pandemic will be a pandemic of children with mental health problems.
“Young people are among those worst affected by what has happened over the last couple of years, and these shocking figures show they need help now. They cannot wait years for appointments to specialist services.”
The Scottish government said: “We know the pandemic has been a challenging time for children and young people. Education authorities and schools have a wide range of approaches in place to support pupils’ wellbeing.
“We have strengthened the support available providing counselling services through schools, supported by £16m of funding per year. In addition, earlier this year we have provided new training for school staff and new national guidance.”
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