Many adults have struggled with their mental health during the pandemic. Even though we have a solid understanding of the issues at hand and the resilience that comes with life experience, it has been tough. It’s hard to imagine how bewildering this experience has been for children – from those born at the height of pandemic panic, to fresh faced five-year-olds with their first experience of school entwined with restrictions, to teenagers cut off from the world and their friends at such a pivotal developmental time in their lives.
In 2017, a survey of children and young people’s mental health across England was undertaken, with follow up work conducted in 2020 and 2021. The surveys concluded that 17.4% of children aged 6-16 had a probable mental disorder in 2021, in 2017 it was only 11.6%.
I am glad that a light is being shone on this situation, as the Education Select Committee has just held an evidence session focusing on children’s mental health and wellbeing. The Committee is also considering what policy changes could support young people’s mental health, which is something we urgently need to consider.
Time for action
Now we are inching back towards some sort of normality, much of the focus has been on repairing the educational damage done to children’s lives, but we need to examine closely the emotional after effects this unusual time has had on young people. We need to act now to improve the mental health and wellbeing of children. We do not have the time to let them languish on ever expanding waiting lists. What is needed is innovative solutions that can reach children immediately and effectively.
Tech is often seen as the enemy when it comes to safeguarding the mental health of children. However, I truly believe that, when properly utilised, technology can bring huge benefits to children and to teachers. Now more than ever, we need to embrace edtech solutions as they can not only help children with their academic learning, but also support them with their mental health.
This month, the children’s commissioner for England, Dame Rachel de Souza released her 2020/21 briefing on children’s mental health services. She notes that some children are still waiting a long time for treatment and that there is still wide variation between local areas on what is being achieved. The briefing also acknowledges that challenges in this area have been made greater by the pandemic.
The pandemic impact
Now is the time to explore any avenues we can to support our children and make sure they get back to leading the full and happy lives we want them to lead. We don’t yet know what long term consequences the pandemic restrictions will have on children’s mental health, but it seems probable that the level of underlying mental health problems will remain significantly higher.
While it was positive for the children commissioner’s briefing to state that progress has been made to reduce the treatment gap between those who need treatment and what is provided, she also concluded that an increase in need has made this more difficult. With over a third of children sitting on lists waiting for their treatment to start, it’s hard to see how our existing system can rise to the challenges currently faced in children’s mental health without some innovation.
NHS England consulted on some proposals concerning mental health access and waiting time standards last year. They have proposed that children, young people and their families/carers presenting to community-based mental health services should start to receive care within four weeks from referral.
This is commendable, but would you want your child to wait a month for any help if they were in mental distress? You wouldn’t be happy to wait a month if they had broken a limb. Allowing children to access immediate extra mental health support via edtech could make all the difference while they wait.
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