My teenage son was diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder four years ago and the toxic combination of severe mental illness, a nine month wait for the right level of care, and Mental Health stigma, almost tore our family apart. But for parents facing the same desperate battle these days, there is another gruesome ingredient – a global pandemic.
Containment measures are necessary to prevent the spread of Covid-19 and save it NHS. Until we feel the impact of the vaccine rollout, cutting off contact is the only way to get the coronavirus under control. But it creates the perfect conditions for mental illness to thrive.
Mental health services were overburdened and underfunded before the pandemic. I did a BBC Panorama Program in 2018, revealing the dire state of our Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). But since confinement the situation has worsened. In October 2020, the The Center for Mental Health has predicted that in England, up to 10 million people (nearly 20% of the population), will need new or additional mental health support as a direct consequence of the crisis. This prediction was made long before a third lockdown. I was heartbroken to read that figure includes 1.5 million children, a national tragedy given that half of all long-term mental health problems in adults begin before the age of 14 .
Many of these young people will continue to need help later in adulthood, which will impact both the NHS and the economy. But it is also about the effect it has on the individual and his loved ones.
If you are the parent of a troubled child during confinement, I think of you. I know you want your kid to be better, but living life in lockdown could make it even more difficult and you are probably in desperate need of specialist help. But maybe you are having trouble accessing it. You are not alone in this situation – many children struggling with their mental health are not considered “sick enough” to seek care from overburdened and underfunded child and youth mental health services or are told that they have to wait months for support. This was before the pressures of the pandemic.
I think the increased restrictions on Covid hit young people harder than the rest of us. School canceled, uncertainty about exams, impossibility of meeting up with friends, three important elements in the lives of young people. It is not surprising that many are fighting.
That is why we need our government to do more. We need a new strategy to ensure that every child struggling with their mental health can get the help they need, both now and coming out of the pandemic. We need better early support in schools, so children can get help from teachers, mental health support teams or counselors when their problems first arise. We need to end the postcode lottery plaguing NHS mental health services, so that no family faces the kind of unacceptable delays in support that my family has experienced. We also need to ensure that help is available in local communities, through charities and youth clubs, many of whom face intense financial pressure.
While we’ve seen some progress in supporting youth mental health in recent years, the pandemic will mean many more will need help. We need a plan and a way forward, and we cannot allow the crisis facing young people to escalate.
Sean Fletcher is Ambassador for YoungMinds, a child and youth mental health charity