Psychiatrists Call for Urgent Action on Children's Mental Health

Peter Russell

September 23, 2021

Protecting young people’s mental health must be a top priority in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP) has said.

It's issued a warning that a record number of children and young people are being referred to mental health services for crisis and non-crisis care.

School Closures

Professionals in the mental health sector have repeatedly warned that children's mental health could be impacted because of school closures and social distancing restrictions.

An analysis by the RCP, based on NHS Digital data, found that:

  • 190,271 0 to18-year-olds were referred to children and young people's mental health services between April and June this year, up 134% on the same period last year and 96% on 2019

  • 8552 children and young people were referred for urgent or emergency crisis care between April and June this year, up 80% on the same period last year, and 64% on 2019

  • 340,694 children were in contact with children and young people's mental health services at the end of June, up 25% on the same month last year, and up 51% on June 2019

Dr Elaine Lockhart, chair of the Faculty of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the RCP, said: "These alarming figures reflect what I and many other frontline psychiatrists are seeing in our clinics on a daily basis.

"The pandemic has had a devastating effect on the nation’s mental health, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that children and young people are suffering terribly."

The Government needed to invest in in a national network of early support hubs to provide easy-to-access, drop-in mental health support for young people, on a self-referral basis, the RCP said.

"Early intervention is key to recovery," said Dr Lockhart, adding that "schools have a critical role to play in this".

Her comment was accompanied by a warning that "without investment, we run the risk of many more needing crisis help".

Case Study

'Sarah', whose teenage daughter relapsed into anorexia during the pandemic, said: "The pandemic has been devastating for my daughter and for our family. She has anorexia and was discharged from an inpatient unit last year, but the disruption to her normal routines and socialising really affected her recovery. She was spending a lot less time doing the things she enjoys and a lot more time alone with her thoughts.

"Unfortunately, she relapsed, becoming so unwell she was admitted to hospital and sectioned. After 72 days in hospital with no specialist eating disorder bed becoming available, we brought her home where I had to tube feed her for 10 weeks. 

 "My daughter urgently needed specialist help for this life-threatening illness, but services are completely overwhelmed because so many young people need help. It's a terrifying situation for patients and families to be in."

The RCP analysis found that more children were being treated for eating disorders since the start of the pandemic. In 2020, 16% of children aged 5 to 16 years were identified as likely to have a mental disorder, compared with 10.8% in 2017, it said.


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