With schools having reopened their doors on March 8th, concerns have been raised that Britain’s school children now face a serious mental health crisis. British paediatricians have warned that they are witnessing an “acute and rapid increase in mental health and safeguarding cases”, with anxiety, depression and self-harm amongst young people rising to worrying levels. Parents have also been reported to be suffering psychological stress and breakdowns due to the pressures of managing their child’s remote learning whilst trying to sustain their own jobs. The Lancet has found that single parent families in particular, have the highest levels of self-reported stress. Gingerbread, the UK’s leading charity for single parents, stresses that the impact of dealing with the financial and practical pressures of Covid, whilst also having the sole responsibility for managing their child’s physical and mental health can be very overwhelming.
Covid-19 lockdowns and social distancing measures put in place by countries across the world have disrupted the lives of every single person. It is critical that while we appreciate the collective impact of lockdowns, the mental wellbeing of children and single parent families is not overlooked in official policy and academic research. Both groups are vulnerable and should form a key part of Covid exit strategy discussions.
The Impact of School Closures on Children’s Mental Health
There have been clear indications that the lockdown is having a direct impact on the mental health of children and young people. The Mental Health of Children and Young People in England 2020 report has found that overall, one in six children aged 5-16 had a probable mental health disorder, an increase from one in nine in 2017. Older girls were found to have the highest rates. The children who were involved in the research cited a variety of reasons for their declining mental health, including family tensions, financial worries, feeling isolated from their friends, missing their daily routine and general fears about contracting the Covid virus.
The Guardian has recently drawn attention to survey data analysed by BBC Radio 4’s File on 4 programme. Hospital admission statistics show that the number of children in the age range of 9-12 admitted to hospital having hurt themselves intentionally rose from 221 in 2013-14 to 508 to 2019-20. These results follow a previous Guardian Investigation in October which documented a rise in the number of children with sleeping difficulties, eating disorders and long waits for treatment. Keith Hawton, professor of psychiatry at Oxford University, has stated how crucial it is for it to be recognised that mental health disorders are now spreading down the age ranges:
“I do think it’s important that it’s recognised that self-harm can occur in relatively young children, which many people are surprised by. I think it indicates that mental health issues are perhaps increasing in this very young age range.”
The assistant general secretary of the National Education Union, Rosamund McNeil has also stressed that the findings of the report are deeply troubling. Whilst we should all recognise the strong correlation between lockdowns and children’s mental health, it is also important that we do not generalise children’s experiences and assume they experience the same emotions uniformly. Indeed, McNeil has argued that the mental health difficulties have been particularly prevalent among children living in poverty, black children and those with pre-existing mental health conditions. If we do not act now, then the rising rates of self-harm could be exacerbated.
Though a common assumption might be that children enjoy the time off school, that it is an extended holiday and that they are “having the time of their lives”, the reality is that the disruption in the routine can be detrimental to many. For many children who suffer from neglect, abuse, difficult family relations and environments, having that all important separation between home and school is their escape route. The school day can facilitate the necessary boundaries which can help provide short relief and something to look forward to.
The site “MumsNet”, an online-based forum; which creates discussion threads between the parents of children and teenagers, has seen an increase in threads related to their child’s mental health. Common themes in the Covid-19 forum include: “Has anyone else’s child been majorly affected in terms of mental health?”, “Child at breaking point, any recommendations”, “Child mental health crisis”, “Child OCD, anxious”, mental health issues and child services” and others. Following Boris Johnson’s announcement on the 27th January 2021 that schools would not reopen until 8th March at the earliest, there was a spike in discussions which pointed to the disappointment and upset of their children, who had been looking forward to reuniting with their teachers and friends.
There have also been concerns raised that remote learning is no substitute for face-to-face teaching; which adds to children’s concerns that they are not progressing quickly enough with their syllabus. The lack of contact time and the teaching through screens can make children switch off and become less engaged in the course material, an experience which has been termed “zoom fatigue”. There has been much research which shows that individuals absorb information in different ways and in an in-person school environment, there is much greater discretion for students to practice a variety of interactive teaching methods. Children’s access to remote learning will also depend on the platform that their school has set up and their ability to access a computer or laptop.
The Impact of School Closures on Parents’ Mental Health
There has been a considerable body of research evidence which documents the devastating effect that the Covid-19 pandemic has had on parents’ mental health and well-being. Parental stress, depression, and anxiety have steadily increased since new national restrictions have been introduced according to the latest report from the Oxford University-led COVID-19 Supporting Parents, Adolescents, and Children in Epidemics (Co-SPACE) study, based on data from over 6000 UK parents.
As with our earlier discussion of children, it is important not to generalise parental groups and assume that they experience mental health difficulties in the same way. Gingerbread, the UK’s leading charity for single parents, has pointed out that single parent families have suffered disproportionately. Gingerbread notes that single-parent families often face structural disadvantages due to having lower incomes and greater expenditure demands. In addition, Covid restrictions have meant that these parents have lost out on formal and informal childcare, for instance, babysitters, childminders and grandparents. With many relying on one income to support their family and are without another adult in the household to balance childcare arrangements, many are struggling to cope. Gingerbread have reported that their helplines and Facebook pages were more active than before with heart-breaking stories of single parents’ worries and fears over losing their jobs and being unable to feed their children. One story included a self-employed single mother who was no longer able to work the few cleaning shifts which she had in her diary as she was unable to leave her 11-year-old asthmatic son on his own whilst his school was closed.
Other stories echo the same sentiments:
“I worry about getting food that is out of stock and paying for the additional 10 lunches I’m covering because they usually have free school meals. I worry about who will look after my children if I get ill or, what if something happened to one of them, who would look after the other?”
The Lancet has found that in the UK, reported mental distress was higher than expected for both; children and single parents. The following proposal addresses the need for long-term policy changes to support both groups through the crisis and beyond.
Supporting Young People:
- Increased investment into student counselling and wellbeing centres at primary, secondary, sixth form and universities, where professionals can provide pastoral support for students who are struggling.
- More funding given to university mental health helplines, which could remotely run on a 24/7 basis. This could also help students on campus who are experiencing loneliness and encourage them to volunteer.
- The organisation of virtual break-out rooms in secondary and sixth form schools where students can discuss course material, upcoming assessments and share revision materials.
- Resources for primary, secondary and sixth form schools geared towards “community recovery”, to help staff support returning pupils and their well-being.
- A change of school curriculums for secondary and sixth form students to include more PSHE lessons, which are focused on mental health, encouraging students to talk about how they feel.
- Virtual free tickets for primary and secondary school events such as sports/talent shows and food tech lessons, where young people can feel connected and learn important life skills.
Supporting Single Parent Families:
- High-quality employment and skills advice provided for single parents. These can include virtual career events where businesses and organisations include “flexibility” as an essential requirement of their job advertisements.
- Better access to financial support for single parent families who have had to take time off work to manage their child’s remote learning, or who have lost out on formal and informal childcare help e.g. childminders and grandparents.
- Government to subsidise the salaries of single parents who cannot work full-time hours, whilst looking after children at home.
- Ensure the social security system is able to adequately help single parents who are out of work and those who are working (both full-time and part-time).
- An increase in the number of part-time and flexible jobs available for single parents.
- The right for single parents to work from home if they would like. This should be enshrined in law.
- Government to subsidise broadband costs for single parent families who are unable to afford this.
- A state funded emergency helpline for parents who are in mental distress to call and receive support.
- Governments must ensure businesses and organisations do not unfairly discriminate against single-parent families e.g. by making job requirements comprehensive in terms of hours needed.
- Government sponsored community based support groups where people can discuss how they are coping and share tips and advice.
- Single parent families who have children entitled to free school meals should continue to receive this support through lockdown.
With schools having reopened on March 8th and the vaccination rollout looking more promising than ever before, there is renewed hope that school closures will not occur again. That being said, whether or not the R rate can continue to be brought down, the effect that the pandemic has had on the mental health and well-being of many children and parents has been significant and will not disappear overnight. It is important that official policy and academic research continue to focus on vulnerable, overlooked groups and identify the kinds of social and economic policies that will be needed to improve their mental health.
By Rohini Anand
Rohini Anand has an MSc in International Social and Public Policy from the London School of Economics. Research interests include crime and criminal justice, healthcare, sociological identities and education.
The featured image (top) is by Sarah Kat on Flickr. It is licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).
The Lancet: Mitigate the effects of home confinement on children during the Covid-19 outbreak (March 4th 2020): https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)30547-X/fulltext
Gingerbread: Single Parents Covid-19 Emergency Appeal: https://www.gingerbread.org.uk/single-parents-covid-19-emergency-appeal/
Gingerbread: Supporting single parent families through the Crisis:https://www.gingerbread.org.uk/policy-campaigns/covid-19-supporting-single-parent-families-through-the-crisis-2/
Gingerbread: Tackling single parent poverty after the Coronavirus: https://www.gingerbread.org.uk/policy-campaigns/publications-index/tackling-single-parent-poverty-after-coronavirus/
The Guardian: Figures lay bare toll of pandemic on UK children’s mental health: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/oct/21/figures-lay-bare-toll-of-pandemic-on-uk-childrens-mental-health
The Guardian: Self-harm among young children in UK doubles in six years: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2021/feb/16/self-harm-among-young-children-in-uk-doubles-in-six-years
MumsNet Website: https://www.mumsnet.com
The Telegraph: Schools closed until March 8- but Boris Johnson promises roadmap out of lockdown: https://www.telegraph.co.uk/politics/2021/01/27/schools-closed-march-8-boris-johnson-promises-roadmap-lockdown/
The Lancet: COVID-19 and mental health (February 2021): https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanpsy/article/PIIS2215-0366(21)00005-5/fulltext