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COVID19: Over 1 in 5 children have had Significant Mental Health Struggles

Eleanor Port-Burke, CEAACC


CEAACC COVID19: Children & Young People's Mental Health Survey


On the 25th of May 2020, Cambridgeshire Expressive Arts and Counselling Centre (CEAACC) shared a survey (via email & social media) asking carers and parents of children and young people (CYP) to feedback on their children's mental health during the COVID19 Lockdown.


The survey aired for 7 days and received 221 responses. The results indicated that over 1 in 5 CYP have suffered significant mental health struggles during COVID19 Lockdown.


Below: Survey Response Summary

"Anxiety" and coping with "Coping with Change and Transition" were the highest concerns:

Confidence, self-esteem, depression, and school related stress have affected at least 1 in 4 (25%) CYP. Carers and parents also commented on the following mental heath concerns during Lockdown:

  • Anger issues 10%

  • Fear of germs/ going outside 8%

  • Social isolation 5%

  • Loss 4.5%

  • Suicidal thoughts 4.0%

"My daughter is crying all the time and wishing she was dead, wishing she had never been born. Calling herself stupid and saying no one loves her. It’s breaking my heart!" (Parent)


Adjusting and coping to COVID19 has been difficult for individuals of all ages (not just CYP). However, CYP are still developing cognitive and emotional skills, and it's not until late adolescence and early adulthood that these skills become secure enough to process and communicate ambiguous and complex situations like COVID19.


While many adults have experienced increased mental health difficulties during COVID19, adults are more able to use secure processing skills to analyse information, and apply constructive frameworks to manage thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. In contrast, CYP have a more scattered way of identifying and processing information. In essence, the processing rhythms for CYP and adults are very different. In real life, it can appear that a CYP is coping one minute/ day, and not at all the next. Often evidenced in sudden changes in behaviour e.g. becoming withdrawn, or becoming aggressive and loud. The point of not coping is not usually the main cause/factor; often these behaviour changes indicate a build-up of anxiety and experience of feeling overwhelmed.


With this understanding of how CYP process, and given the volume of fast-paced change COVID19 has brought,

it is not surprising that CYP are struggling with anxiety, adjustment, frustration, and low mood etc.


Our survey highlighted that children as young as 4 and 5 years old have been struggling with these symptoms.



Quotes from Early Years carers and parents include:

  • "Since Lockdown my 5 year old's become flat and withdrawn, and her eating and sleeping routines have deteriorated."

  • "Separation anxiety has become a new issue."

  • "My 4 year old misses friends and school, and refuses to participate in a lot of home activities."

Many carers and parents across CYP ages reported increased behavioural concerns e.g. anger, aggressive outbursts, meltdowns, and tantrums:

  • "My son has got very angry over this time, he can’t express why, just any small thing that goes wrong he gets very frustrated and angry, hitting out and throwing things."

  • "A lot more anger bursts and temper tantrums."

  • "Anger management and resilience are issues."

Above: Carers and parents express their concern re. their CYP's mental health over the coming months.


A key theme that arose in carer and parent comments were the needs of CYP with Additional/ Special Educational Needs (SEN) e.g. autistic spectrum conditions (ASC), Educational Health Care Plans (EHCP), existing mental health issues, young carers, and CYP who have been previously Looked After (LAC) and adopted.


These carers and parents emphasised increased mental health struggles, and insufficient support from schools and services during Lockdown:

  • My child has Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and is struggling to use digital platforms for learning and socialising. This is causing increased anxiety."

  • "My child has an ASC and is struggling with having no current support from anyone except parents."

  • "Suffers already with mental health. Has EHCP. COVID has been a huge set back."

  • My child is adopted and has significant attachment difficulties and developmental trauma. Anxiety symptoms have increased since Lockdown."

  • "My son has an EHCP for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Since Lockdown there have been constant meltdowns."

  • "My daughter has dyspraxia and ADHD so it’s very hard especially with her anxiety."

  • "We have children with special needs. More professional support is needed while they are off school."

  • "My child's mental health and challenging behaviour has got worse. Before Lockdown he started being assessed for ASC. I am concerned about the transition to secondary school as there are no taster days before September. He is very anxious about this."

  • "My adolescent son suffers has suffered with long-term anxiety and depression. These have got worse in Lockdown. We have reached out to the GP, but received little support."

  • "My daughter is non-verbal. Her behaviour has become more challenging. It is so hard to know what she is feeling and how to help, especially without our regular support structure."

Interesting there was a cohort of comments (approx 5%) from carers and parents that indicated that because of not being at school (where their CYP experienced high levels of academic and social e.g. bullying stress), their CYP's mental health had improved during Lockdown. However, these carers and parents expressed concern about transitioning back to educational environments and subsequent impact on mental health.


"My child's mental health has been much better since not having to be at school. He has no problem doing school work but does not like the school environment. He is happier being at home, and previous anxiety symptoms have eased." (Parent)


While academic adjustment and social isolation were strong themes contributing towards mental health issues, survey results reflected a stronger emphasis on primary school children struggling with dramatically reduced contact with teachers and peer interactions. Several carers and parents highlighted a need for more video-learning opportunities (live or recorded) to increase their CYP's engagement with learning.


Several carers and parents of secondary school CYP also referenced the strain of not seeing peers face-to-face, and the impact of this on platonic and romantic relationships during Lockdown.


A summary of the survey's main themes from carer's and parent's comments:

Conclusion

Our CEAACC COVID19: Children & Young People's Mental Health Survey is community-based capturing a cross-section of how COVID19 has impacted children and young people's mental health.


As an organisation, our aim was to offer an opportunity for carers and parents to give authentic feedback without feeling judged.


While the survey has limitations, it highlights important insights to acknowledge and learn from.


Over 1 in 5 CYP have had significant mental health struggles during COVID19.

That's approx 6 children in a primary school class of 30, and 20 CYP for every 100. 43% of CYP have experienced 'up and down' mental health, and only 34.4% CYP have sustained 'good & resilient mental health'.


Responses show that concerns regarding mental health range from academic stress, anxiety (mild - acute), low mood, loss, and suicidal thoughts.


COVID19 has impacted everyone: personally, professionally, and organisationally. Although a virus affecting physical health, it is important to recognise that mental health still matters.

Early intervention is essential for long-term management and recovery, and prompt support saves lives.


We learn from experience. Children and young people are the adults of the future. Let's keep learning and moving forwards. Mental health matters.



Cambridgeshire Expressive Arts and Counselling Centre (CEAACC) | Ely

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