My son is having a playdate right now, in the room right next door to where I type.
He’s alone, you understand. But perched in front of his iPad screen, with a Lego brick military base providing safe haven for his Star Wars figures, he’s engaged in a tense stand-off with his wee pal’s bad guys. A mile or so from each other in reality, as they ‘pee-yew’ and ‘pow-pow-pow’ their way through their latest imaginary battle, for a brief interlude they seem able to forget the screen between them. And then, their call time is up, and all goes black.
This is play, 2021 style. And it makes my heart break a little.
Mental health crisis
Yesterday, England’s Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, published her fourth annual report on the state of the country’s mental health services for children – and in short, it made for grim reading.
For while there’s been some expansion of children’s mental health services over the past couple of years, to say growth has failed to keep up with demand would be an understatement of epic proportions.
“Even before the COVID pandemic, we faced an epidemic of children’s mental health problems in England and a children’s mental health service that, though improving significantly, was still unable to provide the help hundreds of thousands of children required,” Longfield states.
“It is widely accepted that lockdown and school closures have had a detrimental effect on the mental health of many children. Since the NHS study in July 2020 estimating one in six children in England have a probable mental health condition, we have had another long lockdown. Sadly, this will be causing even more damage to many children’s mental wellbeing and putting even greater strains on mental health services, potentially for years to come.”
These figures would worry even the hardiest of parents – but which of us feels hardy right now? As we adults struggle with lockdown loneliness, fear and anxiety, is anyone surprised that children, too, are feeling the panic of the pandemic?
Back in the eighties, I was an anxious child. There was no real, tangible reason for this anxiety, no pandemic looming outside the front door, no reason to be fearful. And yet, I remember, quite distinctly, feeling panicked about things that didn’t seem to trouble other kids.
I recall, vividly, the joy of curtain up at the theatre when my Mum and Gran took me to see 42nd Street – and then the anxiety that rose ever upward throughout the second half of the show, knowing we’d soon have to return to our car in a multi-storey car park. Multi-storeys, you see, were where bad people lurked.
I remember a similar sick feeling engulfing me when we had to walk past a group of drunk people on a family holiday in York. The feeling of swallowing down nausea as we boarded a plane to Ibiza I was convinced wouldn’t survive the journey. And I remember, most acutely, lying awake night after night, pondering what happens when people die.
It’s a feeling I saw replicated in my own son when we lost my grandmother to coronavirus last April – his first encounter with mortality bar the confusing loss of a pet rabbit, aged four. And it’s a feeling I know troubles him still, on occasion, when he wakes in the night now.
I would give anything to protect him from the anxiety I myself am feeling. But no amount of deep breathing, mindfulness or meditation practice can shield him from the reality that, all around us, a virus is running rampant, removing him from school, from his friends, and from the normal fun of childhood so many of us were lucky enough to take for granted.
The question I dwell on more than any other though, is whether my own anxiety could be rubbing off on my child. And the answer, sadly, is yes.
“The pandemic has put a huge strain on parents and carers, which has had a knock-on effect on children,” warns Emma Thomas, chief executive of the children’s mental health charity Young Minds. “Among children and young people, anxiety about spreading the virus and isolation during the lockdown have also had a major impact.”
Even children who have adapted well to lockdown measures will require protection when this is all over, she warns, with a return to ‘normal’ life coming with its own pressures and worries.
Arguably the most worrying aspect of the Children’s Commissioner’s report is the warning that, if and when it all gets too much for our little ones, there may be little help to come by. Getting a referral to a children’s mental health service without the usual support from schools and GP surgeries is tricky enough – but as the report outlines, even if referred, only 20 per cent of children can expect to receive help within four weeks.
Worse still, in the average English Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG), just one per cent of mental health spending is allocated to children’s services, leaving hundreds of thousands of youngsters totally unsupported. And that’s before we factor in the ever-increasing chasm between the most and least privileged children, so keenly highlighted by the recent free school meals scandal.
Now, with this week’s UK government announcement that school closures will continue at least until March 8, parental stress has ramped up once again. With homeschooling proving nigh on impossible for working parents, and critically damaging to equality in the workplace, the question of how to keep our homes running and our kids safe – while also ensuring they’re prepared for their eventual return to school – is keeping many of us awake into the wee small hours.
So, what can we realistically do? Getting outside whenever possible, introducing our kids to new and distracting activities such as cooking and science experiments, and trying to maintain some form of routine amid the chaos, the experts agree, can go a long way to mitigating the worst of lockdown. Trying to stay calm too, even if it means bunking off homeschool on the days when it’s just too much, is essential to everyone’s wellbeing.
Also critical is keeping kids comfortable with the realities they will face upon their return to school, whenever it comes. Reminding them, lightly, of the sing-song handwashing, of how much they enjoyed playtime in their classroom bubbles, and of how they giggled when they first brought home a disinfected library book, wrapped in plastic and smelling of hospital, will help mitigate the shock of the classroom.
The need for normality
But it is actually getting kids back into school in the first place, Longfield insists, that will be the first real, critical first step towards meeting the incoming crisis of childhood head on. “It is so important the Government sets out a roadmap that helps schools to reopen over the coming weeks,” she says. “In the longer term, the Government’s ‘building back better’ 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 have seen how the NHS has risen to the scale of the COVID crisis for adults. We owe children, who are suffering the secondary consequences of the pandemic, a mental health service that provides the help and support they need.”
As parents, we can only hope that our governments are listening. And in the meantime, as hard it may be, it’s time to find our brave faces. Our children need to see them, now more than ever…