Children face impending mental health crisis after six weeks locked at home, Barnardos says

Charles Hymas
child - Robert Melen / Alamy Live News
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Children will need a “readjustment” term to recover from six weeks in lockdown, says Barnardo’s, as it warned of an impending mental health crisis.

Britain’s biggest children’s charity said its research showed the vast majority of its frontline workers had seen an increase in mental health trauma among children during the lockdown.

This ranged from social isolation and the loss of the “safe space” that school offered to experiencing bereavement through the loss of a relative to Covid-19, poverty, domestic violence or child abuse for the first time.

It urged the Government to allow schools a “readjustment period” lasting “at least a term” where teachers could “adopt a child-led curriculum that prioritises staff and pupil wellbeing.”

Its report, entitled Time for a Clean Slate and revealed today by The Telegraph, said the pandemic also offered a “once in a generation” chance to rebalance the curriculum to focus it more on children’s wellbeing rather than solely exams and academic performance.

“Sixty-seven per cent of school staff told us that these changes would help them to support children and young people with their mental health and wellbeing,” it said.

The report, based on 1,000 frontline Barnardo’s staff and more than 100 teachers, found 88 per cent of the teachers said lockdown would affect their pupils’ mental health and 69 per cent of the charity's workers were already dealing with children with worsening mental health.

This included symptoms of anxiety, stress, irregular sleep, depression, reduced self-esteem, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) behaviours, paranoia and self-harm.

“Schools have told us that a lack of daily contact with their pupils means they cannot pick up early signs of need,” it said.

“It also means that some mental health and wellbeing interventions usually delivered in school cannot be in the current circumstances and that children and young people have less access to their usual support networks.”

However, 26 per cent of the teachers were not confident that their school had the tools, skills and resources needed to support their pupils when they return to school.

Javed Khan, Barnardo’s chief executive, said: “When children return to school, there must be additional resources available to help overcome not just the ‘attainment gap’ but also the ‘trauma gap’ faced by vulnerable pupils.    

“The Government should take this once in a generation opportunity to rebalance the school system, recognising that children rely on school to keep them safe and well, just as much as they need it to pass exams.  

“We urge the Government to work with schools, local authorities, the NHS and charities to place wellbeing at the heart of the curriculum and school culture, so that every child has the support they need to thrive.”

Almost three quarters (73 per cent) of the Barnardo’s staff said that families were worried about becoming infected by Covid-19 by the return to school.

Reassuring parents and children would be critical to a successful reopening particularly for the most vulnerable children and families with existing health conditions, said the report.

Children could also suffer increased anxiety because of changes to their school routine needed to minimise the risk of infection such as staggering start and finish times and breaks, smaller classes, more rigorous cleaning, and social distancing in class and play.

The report identified measures already being put in place by schools to reduce the anxiety including prioritising vulnerable pupils to return first, a focus on well being in class, dedicated time for children and young people to talk about their Covid experiences, more quiet spaces and remembrance gardens.

“The curriculum cannot be simply about academic attainment at the expense of pupil and staff wellbeing,” said the report.

“After Covid it will be even more important than ever to adapt the curriculum to focus on wellbeing, but we also believe this is a once in a generation opportunity to review the existing curriculum and exam structures.”