How lockdown has affected children’s mental health

Pic: Pikist

By Lianne Kolirin, 23 June 2020

The experience of children during lockdown cannot be tackled with a one-size-fits-all approach, a leading child psychologist has said.

While there have been concerns for children’s wellbeing as a result of school closures since March, the experience of young people in Britain has not been uniform, according to Dr Paul Kelly, a consultant educational and child psychologist.

Addressing a media briefing arranged by the Religion Media Centre, Dr Kelly said: “There are children who will be resilient and children who will sail through this experience without a significant impact, but I think it’s important to recognise that it isn’t the same for everybody, and actually there are children who are experiencing this much harder than others.

“As somebody said to me the other day, ‘While we are all in the same storm, we are not necessarily in the same boat’.”

Among those hardest hit, he said, were children with special educational needs, who were used to receiving extra support.

Race and social status have also played a significant role, according to fellow panellist Carmel McConnell, founder of Magic Breakfast, which feeds children at school, ensuring no child is too hungry to learn.

She told the audience of journalists, teachers and religious figures that her charity supported about a third of a million children in 2,300 schools normally, but have had to adapt to the closures by delivering food to schools which then pass it on to those in need.

There would, she said, “undoubtedly” be a long-term impact for those children and families affected. The crisis, she argued, should therefore be used to bring about deep-rooted change in society. “Now is the time for us to say, ‘It’s impossible for us to tolerate this level of racism and poverty in a very rich and caring society’.

“We have got to see this as the time to build back better . . . This is the time to get angry and insist on social and racial justice.”

Agreeing, Dr Kelly said the pandemic had had a “magnifying effect” on the current circumstances of children and their families.

While psychologists and other medical professionals were preparing for the long-term fallout, the best support would come from families, teachers and other adults within their existing spheres, Dr Kelly said.

“The best people to support children and young people in times of crisis and difficulty are those who they already know well, feel safe with and trust,” he said, adding that the focus should be on rebuilding and supporting those connections.

While teachers have been recognised as key workers during this period, parents should also be commended for their efforts, the panel agreed.

“I thought we should do clap a parent or national thank a parent day . . . we do absolutely have to acknowledge that parents have played a huge role in keeping the show on the road,” Ms McConnell said, as she acknowledged the added stress that homeschooling had brought to families already faced with health and financial concerns.

In agreement was Rabbi David Meyer, executive director of PaJeS, Partnerships for Jewish Schools, which supports about 120 Jewish schools in Britain.

“Parents have stepped broadly into that role and should have more recognition,” he said, jokingly suggesting that they should contribute to their children’s school reports.

As restrictions ease, many have experienced less anxiety. But the return to school has exacerbated concerns for some, according to Rabbi Meyer, “that they potentially are the ones who are opening their families up to risk”.

He added: “They are mixing in bubbles that their parents might not be, so what does that mean about bringing it home? There are really complex issues, the kind of issues you would not be expecting children of that age to be grappling with.”

Bobbiella Andoh is an Oasis youth worker attached to the accident and emergency department of a London hospital, working with young people who have mental health issues. She said she and her colleagues had seen a reduction in youth violence during lockdown, but at the same time a rise in self-harming and suicidal tendencies.

“We don’t know exactly what the long-term effects are going to be,” she said. A key to managing in future would be to invest in support services and make young people aware of what was on offer.

“I know some young people are concerned about the health of their parents or who else is in the home, less so about themselves. There’s that anxiety about integrating back into the world.”

Technology has played a key role worldwide as societies everywhere have retreated from normal everyday interactions.

Dr Kelly said that he had never consulted via videoconferencing before lockdown, but that this had now become an indispensable tool.

While schools have relied upon technology to continue educating the nation’s children, some parents have felt concerned at the amount of time children and young people have spent in front of screens.

Acknowledging the vital significance that play and face-to-face contact have for children, Dr Kelly argued that the conversation around technology and children needed to change.

“Many of us are probably spending more time on screens in lockdown. I think it’s more useful to think of screen quality rather than screen quantity, so it’s useful to move away from talking about screen time.”

Highlighting his argument, he gave an example of a woman who passers-by see using her mobile phone while breastfeeding her baby.

“We don’t know what that person is doing,” he said. The mother might be reaching out to a friend for support or searching for information about caring for her child.

“We know that the human brain is designed really for human face-to-face connections — you can’t beat that. But if you can use technology safely it can be very helpful.”