Young people’s mental health must be a priority this lockdown

The writer, a former head of the Downing Street policy unit, is a Harvard senior fellow

In pre-Covid times, some parents wondered if their kids had enough grit. We bought books about growth mindsets and worried about “cocooning”. What a luxury that now seems, with schools closed yet again. University courses are being imbibed from the bedroom and the mental health toll on teenagers in particular is straining the capacity of psychiatrists. 

Lockdowns are a psychological experiment on millions of people. Humans are social animals, for whom solitary confinement is punishment. Denied the chance to mix, we are pushed into our own little worlds, amplifying anxieties. This is especially crippling for the youngsters whose teenage years are supposed to be a social rite of passage. Right now, meetings with friends, sports fixtures, holiday jobs and even driving tests are off limits. There is no escape from parents. 

During the first lockdown, studies suggested that some people had benefited from more exercise and time with family. But there was also a marked increase in depression and anxiety. This time around, the novelty has worn off. Children have lost a year of their childhoods; school-leavers are unemployed. Two-thirds of parents say their children’s behaviour has changed since the start of the pandemic, and half that their biggest worry is the mental wellbeing of their children.

It’s incredible, really, that democratic societies have accepted such severe and prolonged restrictions on their freedom. This has only been possible, I think, because of the anaesthetic of the screen. While parents trudge from one Zoom meeting to another, children tap earnestly through online lessons, then collapse in front of a film. The pandemic has brought us uncomfortably close to the world of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, where the living room wall is a giant screen of pixels no one can take their eyes off. 

Social media companies are the beneficiaries. The more fatigued we become, the more we are drawn to social platforms and the less energy we have to curtail our children’s use. At Christmas, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health warned parents to watch out for eating disorders, which have tripled or even quadrupled in under-13s in some parts of the country compared with a year ago. But it is even harder to counter the damaging effects of celebrity body images, loneliness or not getting enough likes when there is nowhere else to go.

The current row over key worker status reflects that families are at breaking point. Since the government closed schools, headteachers have been flooded with requests for places for key worker children, with some parents accused of faking credentials. Talking to teachers, I get the feeling many parents are more desperate than selfish. In the first two UK lockdowns, over half of working mothers found it hard to stay positive and a third of working fathers. This third lockdown is brutal.

We will only know the full extent of the damage once the pandemic has passed. For some, this crisis will have built resilience. But many will bear scars. Even before Covid, child and adolescent mental health services were turning away nearly a quarter of children referred to them for treatment. Half of all mental health conditions start by age 14. After Covid, more therapists will be needed, urgently.

If any good is to come of this crisis, it must be that any lingering stigma about mental health is abolished. It is over half a century since the war correspondent Richard Dimbleby “came out” about his cancer and broke that taboo. Yet depression still makes people squirm. As a child I saw many people urge my mother, a clinical depressive, to “get a grip”. Nothing could have been less helpful, more hurtful or less relevant.

In a new book, Mending The Mind, Oliver Kamm argues that depression is still poorly understood by western societies which are so wary of “therapy culture” that they have imposed an “indifference culture”. Mr Kamm’s own experience of depression leaves him warning us not to learn the wrong lessons of the pandemic. He urges foregoing a stiff upper lip and acknowledging depression as an illness instead.

In the past, I have wondered about the wisdom of lumping certain disorders together. Statistics about millions of sick days being lost to depression, anxiety or stress — which are very different — dilutes their force. But enduring this horrible experiment is giving many people new insight into the fragility of their own mental states and their children’s.

Government increasingly talks about the need for parity between mental and physical health. Yet in trying to tackle one disease — Covid-19 — it is generating a host of others: undiagnosed heart problems, untreated cancers, mental illness. Mental health provision has actually worsened in the crisis. In September, almost one in four pupils said there was now less mental health support in their schools, while a quarter of children who were receiving mental health support before the crisis have lost it.

Our sense of powerlessness in this crisis is made worse by ministers who keep changing the rules in panic. The education department’s staggering inability to make up its mind about school exams is an unnecessary stress on children already under extraordinary pressure.

I remain hopeful that this generation will pull through. My children have not whined as much as me, and taught themselves new skills. I have never worried less about them becoming “snowflakes”. We will all be changed by this crisis and, hopefully, emerge from it more sensitive as to what it means to be human.

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