Covid-19 uncertainty has presented unique challenges for education with digital poverty, lockdown anxiety, and lack of support affecting students and teachers.

These theme were highlighted in the first annual report by the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition (CYPMHC), a joint campaign of nationwide charities, which said that there are signs that Covid-19: has exacerbated underlying mental health problems of young people, has made new mental health issues harder to treat, and is likely to further increase inequality.

Lockdown anxiety

Studies conducted by charities during lockdown have been grim, with both Barnardo’s, a vulnerable children’s charity, and Girlguiding, a youth charity for girls, reporting many young people struggling with their mental health during lockdown.

“The pandemic and lockdown have been hugely traumatic for young people- separation from friends, anxiety about the virus and financial pressures at home have taken a serious toll on their mental health”, said Barnardo’s Chief Executive Javed Khan.

Barnardo’s found that a third of those studied had experienced a decline in their mental health, and Girlguiding that half of girls had between the ages of 15-18, and a quarter of girls had between the ages 4-10.

These fears have been compounded by data from the Children’s Society’s annual ‘The Good Childhood Report 2020’, that showed that this is part of a worrying pre-pandemic trend- with the average score of happiness for young people down before lockdown.

These findings were also represented by teachers who also have been experiencing higher levels of anxiety and depression, with half of all teachers saying that their mental health declined during the initial stages of the pandemic when replying to a YouGov survey.

Decline in front line support

Charities in the report voiced their concerns that early mental health interventions were hampered during lockdown, and that post-lockdown 88% of youth services said that they are likely, or very likely to be reducing their services to young people- and all this after the decade long budget squeeze on youth services.  

Poverty was also addressed in the CYPMHC’s report as an important factor in student’s education attainment, and its impact of their mental health during lockdown.  And argued that while schools move resources online there needs to be consideration of the already stagnant attainment gap between disadvantaged students and their peers, referencing a study by The Sutton Trust that reported that only 16% of working-class students were likely to attend daily online lessons.

Concluding that digital poverty should not inhibit young people from gaining an education, or from accessing therapy- especially when both these two sectors are and most likely will increasingly move online as we continue to social distance in cyber-space.

In a similar vein as the CYPMHC’s report, the mental health charity Mind, last week launched their own inquiry seeking to hear the experiences of teachers, parents, and young people about their daily lives and of the application of Government policy.

Mind pointed out the urgency of understanding problems with young people’s mental health during the pandemic, as research shows that nearly 1 in 5 young people experiencing a mental health problem drop out of education, that 1 in 10 boys with a mental health problem get excluded, and the on-going decline in attainment for students with mental health problems.

“The pandemic has already had a devastating impact on the lives of millions of children… sadly schools aren’t always able to support young people with mental health problems. In fact, sometimes they can even be part of the problem” said Vicki Nash, Head of Policy and Campaigns at Mind, adding that “our nation’s children are experiencing a once-in-a-lifetime crisis, and it’s vital that we know how to support schools.”

Echoing similar feelings of lack of support Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the National Education Union, said last week that the Department for Education has “left school leaders, teachers and educational professionals feeling both unsupported and with worsening mental health.”

Solutions to the crisis of mental wellbeing in education

Addressing these challenging issues, the CYPMHC’s report has recommended that the Government develop new strategies, fully fund the ones that are already established, and provide extra support for educational staff.

Suggesting that the Department for Education develop a school’s system for better engagement with parents, a fully funded roll out of Mental Health Support Teams at schools, and warning the Government to make sure that digital inequalities do not further increase already established economic ones.

And arguing the case that already existing social services, such as social care and CAMHS, need extra funding as they were already over stretched before lockdown, and that greater use could be made of signposting young people to local mental health and youth services.

As well as asking the Department for Education to set a moratorium for exclusions over the next academic year, saying that behavioural problems are a symptom of anxiety in this traumatic time, and that punishment by exclusion would not be appropriate, or be a solution for dealing with that issue.

Although the report was not completely critical of current efforts and welcomed a new public health campaign by Public Health England, Better Health- Every Mind Matters, that is providing NHS endorsed advice for parents and carers, so they can pick up the signs that their child might be struggling with their mental health during this pandemic.