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Coronavirus: Experts warn of impact of lockdown on children’s mental health

Parents Kristina and Graham Currie with daughter Clemence at their home in Edinburgh, where they are making the most of their time in lockdown
Parents Kristina and Graham Currie with daughter Clemence at their home in Edinburgh, where they are making the most of their time in lockdown

A leading psychiatrist has warned a fall in the number of children being referred for specialist help during lockdown could have a devastating impact on their mental health.

Justin Williams, who is vice-chairman of the Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Scotland, said the absence of support from teachers and other care professionals could result in early warning signs being missed and mean a surge in demand for services once the quarantine ends.

The Aberdeen University lecturer said self-isolation and social-distancing were already having an impact on young people struggling with issues such as anxiety and depression.

“I think we’re going to see problems emerging when lockdown ends, as kids are not currently getting access to social services,” said Dr Williams. “We have seen a drop in referrals, and I think that’s because kids are not going to school or reporting their experiences, and taking them to see the GP may currently be considered low priority. It is important to stress we are open for business.”

A report this week by Young Scot and the Scottish Youth Parliament, called Lockdown Lowdown, found almost two-fifths of young people felt moderately or extremely concerned about their own mental wellbeing. And a separate report from YouthLink Scotland showed the youth-work sector was facing a mental health crisis due to projected budget cuts.

Dr Williams said it was ­normal to feel worried about the Covid-19 pandemic but stressed sudden change in daily life could be damaging.

He said: “For young people who already have difficulties with leaving the house, when lockdown is lifted we are going to find it hard to get them back to school or go out and socialise.

“Many kids who find formal education difficult currently have a reprieve, so it may become even more difficult to leave their bedrooms.”

He added: “There are lots of families where the behaviour of the young people is challenging, and being all shut up together mean these problems become magnified.”

According to government agency Public Health Scotland, the majority of mental health issues arise before the age of 24, with 50% of children’s difficulties established by age 14.

In February, the Scottish Government announced plans to guarantee access to support for young people dealing with mental health issues.

As a result, health boards have been issued with CAMHS guidance, outlining what young Scots can expect when referred for help, and £5 billion had been promised for investment in mental health services over the life of the current Parliament.

However, the pandemic’s impact on young people’s mental health and the support available remains uncertain.

According to a new survey by the Fawcett Society, 43% of UK parents with young children are struggling to make ends meet and admit they have nearly run out of money.

And Dr Williams agrees parental financial stress could be starting to take its toll.

He said: “Whether it is because of a lack of money or feeling increasingly depressed because we are not allowed to see friends or engage in social activities, people are stressed. It’s okay for a few weeks but, as time goes on, you begin to get more and more affected.

“I would expect the longer this goes on, more problems are going to develop and more challenges are going to arise – whether after the lockdown or as lockdown progresses.”

A Mum’s Story

Kristina Currie and husband Graham live in Edinburgh with seven-year-old Clemence.

Although the couple have worked hard to ensure their daughter feels happy, safe and secure during lockdown, Kristina admits it has been difficult to be separated from friends and family – especially as Clemence celebrated her seventh birthday at home.

“Her birthday probably caused her the most stress of anything that’s happened – she was just so concerned it wouldn’t feel like a birthday because it was in lockdown,” explained Kristina, who runs children’s store Bon Tot in Stockbridge, Edinburgh.

“But it turned out to be one of the best days of her life.

“A lot of people stopped by our gate, dropped off cards and little gifts, and we decorated her wagon to take a little parade on the prom at the beach.

“It just felt extra special because of lockdown.”

Clemence often spends lots of time with her grandparents, so Kristina was initially worried about the impact of keeping them apart.

She said: “The only major issue has been not knowing when she can see her friends or grandparents again.

“She had what she described as a ‘major meltdown’, where she howled and cried from her gut because she couldn’t see them.

“She told me she was sad because she couldn’t hug them – that physical absence really hit about two weeks ago.

“Our response was to make sure she has lots of cuddles and as much time as she needs, filling the space with family love.”

Kristina added: “I think, as a family, we are possibly bucking the trend and thriving in lockdown.

“We consciously decided to make it a very positive experience, accepting the situation straight away, not fighting against it, which has absolutely had an effect on Clemence.

“I definitely think the way parents respond affects children, so we’ve both been very mindful of remaining calm.”

A Gran’s Story

By Marion Scott

In November, Linda Broadhurst’s daughter Emma Watson, 32, took her own life after losing her partner in a fatal accident and struggling with mental health issues.

The young mum left four children and now, six months on, the grieving family are struggling to obtain the help they need.

Linda, 57, from Ashgill, Lanarkshire, said: “The only thing that kept us all going was the support we got from Families Affected by Murder and Suicide (FAMS), especially my grandchildren who were distraught, angry and lost.

“The organisation was our lifeline, always there for us when we needed them. That’s why the lockdown has been so hard. We can’t reach out to FAMS and sit down with the people who were there for us through the worst times, because of social distancing rules. Now, as the grief really has us in its grip, lockdown means we can only speak to FAMS by phone.”

Emma Watson

FAMS’ Ann Marie Cocozza said: “There have been three murders and one suicide in Lanarkshire in the past three weeks alone, and because of lockdown we are unable to do the job we need to do to support these four families in their time of greatest need.

“Our teams would usually be there for them, sitting face-to-face to offer support and advice.

“Instead, we are forced to do our jobs over the phone.

“How can you console a devastated mum who has lost her child with a phone conversation?”

Ann Marie said: “Our calls are now spiralling towards 300 a week, that’s six times what we’d usually expect.”

What the experts say

Nursery age

Earlier this month, the mindfulness and meditation app Headspace partnered with TV’s Sesame Street to launch six animated shorts, which aim to help children combat stress and anxiety.

Dr Megan Jones Bell, chief science officer at Headspace, explained: “Children, as well as adults, may be feeling worried, confused, frightened and overwhelmed with the changes in their daily lives.

“Children can become quite accustomed to routine, so it’s important you explain, in an age-appropriate way, why they can’t see their friends, go to nursery or play in the park. The better understanding children have of what is going on, the less worry and concern they will feel.

“Children may also be more exposed to the feelings of grown-ups, such as stress or anxiety, than they have been before – and are likely to sponge up the extra emotions around them, and experience these feelings themselves.

“It’s important to explain why adults may be feeling more worried than usual, but also to reassure them that your family are doing all the right things and are safe.”

Primary age

As schools remain closed, primary-age children will take the lead from their parents when it comes to emotions.

Consultant psychiatrist, Dr Elaine Lockhart, of the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Scotland, believes many households are getting more creative in a bid to keep their children happy and healthy.

She said: “If the adults in their lives are doing OK, kids are going to be fine. But cabin fever, working from home, and money worries can make parents stressed, which is going to be the biggest factor for children. For primary school kids, if they don’t have challenges like being learning-disabled or autism or ADHD, it will be easier to get them through this. It’s a bit of a challenge, but taking turns will help.

“When one parent goes off and does some work, the other can hang out with kids.

“There is something to be said for taking advantage of the situation as well.

“This has never happened before, we hope it’ll never happen again – but when would you normally get to hang out with your children so much?”

Secondary age

Teenagers and adolescents may find this time frustrating, especially as they are isolated away from peers. Parenting expert Tanith Carey, whose latest book What’s My Teenager Thinking? is published on Thursday, says it’s common for teens to feel directionless while schools and exams are on hold.

“I worry about kids spending a lot of time on their own on their phones,” she said. “As well as social media issues, they see headlines, and if they try to process that without an adult putting what they’re seeing into perspective, it could add to their anxiety.

“As parents, we have to be proactive in trying to invite children to do things. Invite them to do something with no strings attached and no pressure, such as cooking or baking together.”

She added: “Parents suffer a lot from moments of panic and that can really be transferred to the teenager. So, we have to be a calm role model.”