Councils have had to find innovative ways to support and promote children and young people’s emotional wellbeing during the pandemic.
It is impossible to ignore the impact that COVID-19 is having on the mental health and wellbeing of children, young people, their families, and communities.
Many children are incredibly resilient, adapting to home schooling and different ways of engaging with friends and family. But recent NHS figures suggest that the number of children referred to child and adolescent mental health services is up 20 per cent on last year.
The latest NHS Digital survey, in July 2020, found mental health problems for children aged five to 16 years have increased to one in six (16 per cent) from one in nine (10.8 per cent) in 2017.
Mental health problems increase with age; the recent Prince’s Trust Tesco Youth Index 2021 (see www.princes-trust.org.uk) found that the pandemic has severely affected the mental wellbeing of young people aged 16-25, with one in four saying they felt unable to cope.
Many of the more vulnerable children and young people in society have been more negatively impacted by COVID-19.
For example, more than a million children do not have access to a laptop, desktop or tablet at home, according to Ofcom, with many using mobile phones. More than 880,000 of them live in a household with only a mobile internet connection.
This can only lead to an increase in the learning gap, hitting the poorest pupils hardest. While children who do not have access to the technology they need to learn from home can now attend school, attendance by vulnerable children in the first lockdown was low, with families concerned about children and family members catching the virus.
Councils, schools, the Government and partners will need to work together to make sure that, where children can attend school, that is the best option for them, and to reassure families that it is safe to do so.
In the LGA’s ‘A child-centred recovery’, published last year, we set out our concerns about the mental health of children and young people throughout the pandemic, as well as the opportunities for referrals if they were seen less by schools or other professionals.
We called on the Government to provide long-term funding to invest in effective and evidence-based mental health and wellbeing services and statutory mental health services for children, to meet existing, new and unmet demand that has built up during the pandemic, including preventative mental wellbeing.
“More than a million children do not have access to a laptop, desktop or tablet at home…”
Children and young people need support to help them cope with the strains and pressures they face, and maintaining good mental health and wellbeing is vital, both now and for their futures.
Local authorities have key roles to play as guardians of mental health and wellbeing in their communities. Many are rising to the challenge of promoting good mental health and preventing poor mental health.
They and their partners have been quick to embrace digital to connect with people in their communities (see ‘Leeds MindMate’, below).
However, digital technology is not accessible for everyone, and services have also adapted to safely support children’s welfare face to face during the pandemic (see ‘Walk and talk in Northamptonshire’, below).
Working collaboratively and flexibly with partners has enabled resources to be redeployed, supported new approaches to be delivered rapidly, and has created quicker ways to learn about community experiences.
Children and young people have borne a disproportionate weight of the social impact of the pandemic, navigating their way through changes to their schooling, family life and losing social contact with their friends.
Despite this, there have been some positive experiences, with the lockdown allowing families to spend more time with their children, learning new skills, and enjoying the outdoors, in gardens, parks and green spaces.
As we look to recovery, councils and their partners need to consider how they can maximise the learning and innovation that has happened because of COVID-19.
Mental health needs to be at the heart of a holistic approach to recovery that includes parks and green spaces for both physical and mental health and wellbeing, housing needs, learning and training opportunities to fulfil potential, employment prospects, and social inclusion.
MindMate is a Leeds-based website for young people, their families and the professionals who support them, which helps explore emotional wellbeing and mental health issues, offers information about where support is available, and provides teaching and other resources (see www.mindmate.org.uk).
In a recent radio campaign with media group Global, young people had the opportunity to give personal self-care tips, which were then shared online. This was a chance for young people in Leeds to talk about some of the positive ways they can take care of their mental health, especially during such a challenging time.
Young people have also been encouraged to express their thoughts, feelings and experiences on topics relating to mental health via the MindMate blog. A recent example is ‘Being Black and Being Me’, in which Tamirah – a young black woman from Leeds – discusses how racism can affect the mental health of those who experience it, and the ways we can combat the prejudice that exists in society.
In another blog, ‘Being South Asian and the Problem of Stigma’, Pratyasha discusses how mental health can often be a taboo topic in South Asian households. Other blogs include ‘Experiencing PTSD as a Young Female’, ‘Body Image’ and ‘Staying Hopeful During a Pandemic’.
Young people have also been actively involved in informing the Leeds Future in Mind strategy. Their voices have been fundamental in planning how people will work together, across services in the NHS, Leeds City Council and in the community, to improve children and young people’s emotional and mental health.
Walk and talk in Northamptonshire
The challenge of the pandemic and lockdown restrictions have led to an innovative approach to children’s mental health from school nurses in Northamptonshire.
When COVID-19 hit, they had to suddenly step away from doing face-to-face sessions with young people. Although they were able to maintain support through a text-messaging service, phone and video chat, the physical connection was missing.
They came up with the idea of a socially distanced ‘walk and talk’ in local parks, The sessions helped them gain a deeper assessment of children’s mood and how they were coping physically, and address those issues in a more personal way.
Most importantly, the nurses have had positive feedback from parents about the invaluable support this has offered during the pandemic.
Eva Trkulja, Specialist Community Public Health Nurse, School Nurse, said: “If students are struggling with emotional distress, and they don’t get the support they need at an early time, that can often lead to more serious or worrying mental health concerns. So we needed to come up with a solution that meant we could meet with students face to face. We found local parks offered a real sense of tranquillity, which really helped.”
To find out more, watch ‘Walk and Talk, Northamptonshire’ at youtu.be/mrzPERTzRgE