• UNICEF has urged the government to act quickly to avoid a 'looming crisis' in children's mental health 

  • Place2Be, a children's mental health charity, share their inside knowledge on how the pandemic has affected children and young people, as well as details of their new training programmes for teachers and mental health professionals

  • We have counsellors and therapists trained to work with children and adolescents – find yours here 

A report released earlier this month by UNICEF described some of the challenges we face due to the coronavirus pandemic. The report highlighted children’s mental health as one of the biggest issues, and calls on the government to act now in order to avoid a ‘looming child crisis’.

We knew from the outset that lockdown would present a fresh set of challenges for young people, with the removal of support structures such as friendship groups and extra-curricular and enrichment activities. But even now after six months, the true long-term impact of the pandemic on children remains unknown.

Impact on children and young people 

It’s safe to say that the pandemic has placed additional pressure on those who were already struggling. One in eight children and young people already had a diagnosable mental health condition, and according to a survey by YoungMinds, 83% of young people with a history of mental health needs agreed that the coronavirus pandemic had made their mental health worse.

For the thousands of children and young people that Place2Be supports across the UK, it was a mixed picture. Some thrived at home, while others missed the stability and structure of the school environment. According to a recent survey of our school-based mental health professionals, the pandemic has had a majorly or moderately negative effect on around 60% of the young people we have supported through lockdown (based on the experiences of 857 young people).

In the early days of lockdown, loneliness and isolation was the most commonly discussed topic by young people, alongside academic worries and juggling schoolwork. However more recently, returning to school after lockdown was the most common cause for concern, alongside worries about transitioning to new year or school, and family relationship difficulties.

The essential role of teachers 

Now as pupils and staff attempt to settle back into school life, it’s crucial that teachers feel equipped, confident and supported to address mental health issues in the classroom. Teachers play a vital role in helping to normalise difficult feelings and promoting positive ways to look after our mental health, as well spotting the signs when a child might be struggling and need professional help.

Data Place2Be gathered from 1,564 teachers and school staff during lockdown, revealed that more than a quarter (27%) of teachers said managing classroom behaviour feels stressful or causes them anxiety. Only 28% of respondents felt confident that they could intervene to support pupils with serious social, behavioural or emotional issues, and this dropped to 17% for teachers with less than six years’ teaching experience.

In order to build skills and capacity for supporting positive mental health in school communities following the COVID-19 lockdown, Place2Be has made its Mental Health Champions – Foundation programme available free to 50,000 UK teachers this school year. Over 10,000 teachers signed up to the programme within the first month, emphasising the huge demand for this type of support from school staff.

Good mental health is ‘everyone’s business’

Whilst teachers are clearly on the frontline when it comes to supporting pupils’ mental health, and can have an enormously positive impact when empowered with the right skills and understanding, it’s important to remember that they cannot do it alone. Teachers must rightly prioritise the education of their pupils and should not be expected to become mental health ‘experts’. They need to be backed-up by mental health professionals.

With the anticipated increase in mental health needs as a result of the pandemic, it’s crucial that schools have access to highly-skilled mental health professionals, however schools have previously told us that they have struggled to find counsellors and therapists with the right skills and experience. In response, Place2Be has developed a strategy to build a high calibre workforce of children’s mental health professionals across the UK, in line with our belief that no child should have to face mental health problems alone.

Most recently, we have launched The Wolfson Place2Be Bursary – to encourage people from under-represented groups in the counselling profession, or those who require financial support, to train with Place2Be. We are committed to building a diverse talent pipeline to ensure that children and young people get the best possible support.

The period of lockdown has emphasised what we have long known – that schools are at the hearts of our communities. Many school leaders have done a fantastic job of focusing on social, emotional and mental health in the first weeks as pupils returned, helping them to settle into their ‘new normal’. But to truly succeed, a focus on good mental health must continue throughout the school year, and be an embedded part of everyday school life.

We need to be ready for whatever the long-term impact of this pandemic might be. But by working together and with the right resources, teachers, families and mental health professionals can hopefully begin to counteract some of the worst effects of the pandemic on young people’s mental health.

Niki Cooper, Clinical Director at Place2Be. Place2Be is the UK’s children’s mental health charity, supported by a range of funders including players of the People’s Postcode Lottery. The charity currently works with over 700 schools across the UK. Find out more at www.place2be.org.uk 

Further reading

Anxiety levels soar as children return to school post-lockdown

Reducing anxiety at school: teachers and parents must work together

What I've learned about young people as a school counsellor

The benefits of therapy for young people

7 things we should be teaching children