By Nadeem Badshah
MENTAL HEALTH problems in children have been overlooked in the fight against Covid 19 and a long-term action plan is needed, according to British Asian parents, MPs and experts.
Parents have revealed the challenges of lockdown and remote learning on their children and shared their advice for families as the children’s commissioner for England, Anne Longfield, warned that mental health services were not being able to cope with the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on young people.
She urged a “rocket boost” in funding as the supply of treatment for child mental health problems was already falling well short of demand, with referrals rising 35 per cent, but treatments only increasing by four per cent.
Prime minister Boris Johnson is facing growing calls to grant more freedom to youngsters by letting junior sports teams and after-school clubs resume during the half-term break which begins next Monday (15).
Munira Wilson MP, the Liberal Democrat’s spokesperson for health, wellbeing and social care, told Eastern Eye: “In parliament [last week], I asked the government to urgently set up a cross-departmental taskforce to ensure everything is being done to support children during these distressing times.
“It has been heartbreaking to see British Asian communities disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, with too many families losing loved ones.
“Children living in British Asian communities will be dealing with troubling emotional trauma and will need to be supported for many years after this pandemic has passed.
“What is needed more than ever is a clear plan on how the government intends to reopen schools safely. Parents and teachers need to finally achieve clarity on the situation, and most important, children need a pathway back to positive learning environments, which are essential for mental wellbeing.”
Health secretary Matt Hancock has said schools cannot return until March 8 at the earliest, adding that despite “good news” on vaccines and cases, “we have still got 30,000 people in hospital and there are still far too many people dying each day”.
Sukhi Wahiwala, a father-of-four and an entrepreneur and motivational speaker, told Eastern Eye: “Mental health, specifically for children, is most definitely a challenge due to the fact that they require a social period in their life between the ages of seven to 21.
“What we’ve done with our own children is that we have allowed them to communicate much more than normal on social platforms so they can continue to evolve their own community and communication skills.
“When they are in lectures or school lessons, they are talking only with teachers, so they are not really interacting much with their friends. So, our advice is that after their lesson day has finished, the kids can communicate with their friends to have a social conversation as they would at the end of school and discuss, chat and socialise.
“We have also opened up a platform for allowing our children once a week to sit with us and talk individually about any challenges and any ideas they have got, and also as a family, encouraging them to talk among themselves and do things as teams, kind of replicating the school social environment.”
The author and TED Talk speaker added: “Our children would really love to be on a Zoom call with their friends constantly. We have relaxed our commitment to a reduction of social platforms such as Snapchat and we’ve allowed them to communicate more among their friends with video conferences and calls within certain time frames.
“But we have also noticed that among the greater community, not every parent has been able to make these adaptations due to their own workload and their own increased mental burdens of meeting bills, food and care.”
Separate research found that more than a quarter of teenagers are showing symptoms of anxiety and depression. A similar number struggled with concentration and nearly a third had trouble sleeping, according to research by the Mental Health Foundation and Swansea University.
Missing milestones, including exams and school-leaving parties, were cited, along with teenagers putting more time into friendship than other age groups.
Juggy Sidhu, a fitness trainer who has two sons, believes children’s mental wellbeing has been overlooked in the fight against the spread of Covid-19.
He said: “Expressing emotion and sharing a range of complex feelings with developing communication skills is an obstacle for most adults, let alone young children. With schools doing their best to cover the bases with online learning platforms, the difficulties in accessing expert support to nurture our children’s mental wellbeing may yet leave a lasting mark on their development.
“A simple strategy that has proven effective and enjoyable with our young children at home has been mindful journaling – developing a conscious awareness of gratitude, the positives in choices that are out of our control, addressing the importance that it is ok to not feel ok and building the capacity to reflect without judgement.”
An NHS Digital report last year found that probable rates of mental disorders among children and young people have increased by almost half since 2017, with coronavirus and lockdown identified as major factors.
In 2019-2020, 538,564 children were referred for help, an increase of 35 per cent on the previous year and nearly 60 per cent up on the year before that. The numbers getting treatment also rose, but at a much slower rate. In 2019-2020, 391,940 children received treatment.
Last week [beginning February 1] marked Children’s Mental Health week in the UK.
Labour MP Yasmin Qureshi said: “It is crucial that we continue to support children during the pandemic, but also as we emerge out of this crisis, we support their mental health.”
Fellow Labour MP Dr Rosena Allin-Khan has been pushing for changes to the Mental Health Act, which is going through parliament, to address issues faced by ethnic minorities and the impact of the pandemic.
Dr Allin-Khan said: “Children from the poorest 20 per cent of households are four times more likely than those from the wealthiest 20 per cent to have serious mental health difficulties by the age of 11.
“That will not be solved simply by mental health legislative changes. There must be a commitment to addressing the vast chasm of health inequalities across the country.
“Mental health staffing levels are crucial to ensuring that mental health services are fit for purpose. Covid has shown us how all the pressures on mental health are building. We need action now.”
Kamran Uddin, a writer who has a four-year-old son, said: “I have young son who is very hyperactive, so staying stuck at home is definitely taking its toll on him, me and my wife.
“I do try and break up the days and give him time for everything such as watching TV, going for a walk and playing games. When it comes to his school work, I find doing it for 10-minute bursts throughout the day helps. I give him rewards in the form of toys or sweets for completing his work or doing chores such as cleaning up his bedroom.”
The government is providing an extra £2.3 billion to help a further 345,000 young people access NHS-funded services or school and college-based support. It has also pledged to train a new dedicated mental health workforce to support people in schools and colleges.
Talking about further measures to support young people’s mental health, health minister Nadine Dorries said: “Children and young people’s mental health services have remained open throughout the pandemic, offering digital and remote access to maintain support, and accepting new referrals.
“NHS England asked all mental health trusts to ensure that there are 24 hours a day, seven days a week open access telephone lines for urgent National Health Service mental health support, advice and triage for all ages through a single point of access. Crisis lines are an NHS Long Term Plan ambition brought forward from 2023-24.”