Due to Covid, youth mental health problems have gone from niche to mainstream

Ed Dorrell
·3-min read
<p>‘Parents of teenagers are worried about their kids’ academic progress being hampered by school closures, but they are infinitely more concerned about the impact on their mental health’</p> (Getty Images)

‘Parents of teenagers are worried about their kids’ academic progress being hampered by school closures, but they are infinitely more concerned about the impact on their mental health’

(Getty Images)

Commentators – whether professional or those sitting outside pubs chewing the ears off strangers – have become fond of telling us how “things will never be the same again”.

They may be right, and they may be wrong, but you can be sure that most people on the receiving end of this so-called insight will hope it will be the latter. These “experts” never bore of telling us, for example, that we’ll all be working from home for the rest of our careers, that paper money will soon be surplus to requirement, and that it will be impossible to reinstate GCSEs in their traditional form.

These are people who love “disruption” and crises as an opportunity to achieve the kinds of change that they’ve longed for but in a way not shared by most normal people. Most normal people only support radical reform when they’re persuaded that all other options have been exhausted.

There is one issue that the pandemic has worsened – youth mental health. Many now accept that the mental health issues affecting young people require a radical solution.

Our recent research at Public First shows that young people, teenagers and children have experienced disproportionately high levels of mental health issues as a result of the pandemic. With schools and universities closed, many have retreated into crazy sleeping patterns and digital addiction.

As a result, the general public is now talking about this issue in a way that was previously unthinkable. I have run countless focus groups during the pandemic – many with parents of teenagers and children – to talk about education. But time and again, participants have explained to me that while they are worried about their kids’ academic progress being hampered by school closures, they are infinitely more concerned about the impact on their mental health.

This is a genie that won’t be put back into the bottle however quickly we revert to the old normal.

Even before the pandemic, there were growing concerns about mental health in this country’s young people – but these went largely unacknowledged by the general public and the political classes, and were too often dismissed as a middle-class indulgence.

This historical neglect was perhaps most evident in the shameful way that funding and support for NHS child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) were allowed to wither. Waiting lists rocketed and services were cut to the bone – and yet barely anyone outside of schools, local authorities and the youth sector could summon up the energy to get angry about it.

To be clear, the kind of thing being witnessed week in, week out included the most severe cases – teenagers at risk of suicide – being forced to wait for more than a year to be seen by a psychiatrist.

After Covid, surely this state of affairs can no longer continue? The older generation of this country, it is often said, owes an enormous debt of gratitude to its children and grandchildren for the way that, with barely a whinge, they accepted (and largely respected) an enormous curtailment of their lives despite having a relatively small risk of severe symptoms from the disease themselves.

One way this civic generosity of spirit should be rewarded is to get schools and universities back to normal as soon as possible – and, yes, clubs and festivals too – but surely the greatest way of understanding the scale of their sacrifice would be to inject serious time, money and thinking into CAMHS and other adjacent services.

This is not only the right thing to do, it will soon become a political necessity. Youth mental health has finally become a mainstream issue, and that is not about to suddenly change.

Ed Dorrell is director of Public First

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