Triggers for self-harm and poor mental health are aggravated by pandemic restrictions, according to experts.
They have now issued a stark warning about the effects of the pandemic on the mental health of children and young people.
Professor Tamsin Ford, of the University of Cambridge, and colleagues including Professor Ann John, of Swansea University Medical School, say deterioration is clearest among families already struggling.
Writing in the BMJ, they are calling for urgent action “to ensure that this generation is not disproportionately disadvantaged by covid-19”.
They point to evidence that the mental health of the UK’s children and young people was deteriorating before the pandemic, while health, educational, and social outcomes for children with mental health conditions were worse in the 21st century than the late 20th century.
For example, between 2004 and 2017 anxiety, depression, and self-harm increased, particularly among teenage girls.
Professor John said: “Mental health conditions in childhood predict worse adult health and reduce the ability to learn and achieve at school.
“We need to work with and for children and their carers to mitigate the impact of the pandemic and recognise that this impact was not and will not be experienced equally amongst our children.
“We need to address access to appropriate services, promote well-being and social connection in school but also look to address broader determinants of mental health such as poverty.”
Studies carried out during the pandemic suggest that although some families are coping well, others are facing financial adversity, struggling to home school, and risk experiencing vicious cycles of increasing stress and distress.
Probable mental health conditions increased from 11 per cent in 2017 to 16 per cent in July 2020 across all age, sex, and ethnic groups according to England’s Mental Health of Children and Young People Survey (MHCYP).
And a sample of 2,673 parents recruited through social media reported deteriorating mental health and increased behavioural problems among children aged 4 to 11 years between March and May 2020 (during lockdown) but reduced emotional symptoms among 11 to 16-year-olds.
The more socioeconomically deprived respondents had consistently worse mental health in both surveys, note the authors - a stark warning given that economic recession is expected to increase the numbers of families under financial strain.
Ford and colleagues argue that the evolving consequences of the pandemic “are set against long-standing concerns about deteriorating mental health among children and young people, and the inadequacy of service provision.”
The long-term effects also remain uncertain: “What we do know is that education has been disrupted and many young people now face an uncertain future.”
Read their article Mental health of children and young people during pandemic in full