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'Children's mental health help is vital'

Column by Dr Caroline Johnson, MP for Sleaford and North Hykeham

I am delighted that schools have now reopened their doors and pupils have been able to reunite with classmates, friends and teachers.

This generation of children has experienced a level of disruption to their education like no other. As the Government turns its attention to helping young people catch up on lost learning through the £700m education recovery package, it is crucial that these efforts focus not just on academic performance but on their overall mental wellbeing.

Caroline Johnson (23271513)
Caroline Johnson (23271513)

It is clear that the closure of schools has had a dramatic impact on the mental health of children. Schools are not just places for learning but rather environments for children to develop both socially and emotionally. As Professor Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics told the education committee in January, ‘when we close schools we close their lives’.

The Centre for Mental Health reports that as a result of the pandemic there are an additional 500,000 previously healthy children who will require mental health support, and according to the NHS the number of children aged 5-16 with a mental health disorder has increased from one in nine in 2017 to one in six as of July 2020. This steep increase includes concerning levels of life-threatening conditions such as eating disorders.

Through my experience working as consultant paediatrician, throughout the pandemic I have seen this trend first hand, as greater numbers of children with psychiatric problems are being admitted to acute medical wards.

Even more worrying than the children that we know are suffering are the ones we don’t – paediatricians rely on schools as our eyes and ears, and their closure resulted in a new generation of invisible vulnerable children, as child protection referrals fell by around 40 per cent during the first pandemic wave.

Investing in our children’s mental health is an investment in their education. Academic achievement and mental health are linked in a virtuous cycle – children with better health and wellbeing are likely to achieve better academically, and academic success is strongly associated with higher levels of satisfaction among young people.

I am glad the Government has recognised the importance of this issue and announced a £79 million boost to mental health services for children and young people. This additional funding will help ensure that nearly three million children in England can access this vital support when and where they need it – by creating hundreds more mental health support teams in schools and colleges.

There is still a long road ahead but it is vital we continue to take a holistic approach to our children’s education that encompasses not just academic prowess but their overall mental and physical wellbeing.

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