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Covid ‘putting a rocket under’ children’s poor mental health outcomes

23 February 2021

New data reported in the British Journal of Psychiatry shows that 7% of children have attempted suicide by the age of 17 and almost one in four say they have self-harmed in the past year. There are fears that these figures have risen even higher during the pandemic.

The figures are taken from analysis of the lives of around 19,000 British children born at the start of the millennium as part of the millennium cohort study.

Scaled up to the whole population, that means that 52,427 17-year-olds could have  attempted suicide at some point in their lives and 170,744 could have self-harmed in the 12 months before Covid hit.

Dr Bernadka Dubicka, chair of the the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ child and adolescent mental health faculty, said the findings are part of a long and “really concerning trend”.

Study author Dr Praveetha Patalay said: “Our study highlights large inequality in these adverse mental health outcomes at age 17, with women and sexual minorities being particularly vulnerable, potentially reflecting the greater disparity in the pressures they face, and highlighting the need for support that is sensitive to the challenges experienced by them during adolescence… There is definitely a need to provide more, better and earlier support for young people to prevent their mental health difficulties from getting so severe, but equally we really need to think about why young people today are struggling so much.”

41% of all admissions to hospital for self-harm were teenagers.

The report said: “Age 17 marks an important age before many key life transitions, including the ending of compulsory education and moving away from home. With the ending of support from Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) around this critical age, many young people fall through the gaps between CAMHS and adult mental health services, potentially further worsening outcomes at the precise time when support is most required. These findings underline the urgent mental health support need in this generation.”

In 2018, 759 young people took their own lives in the UK and Republic of Ireland.

DR UK’s Head of Policy Fazilet Hadi said: “It is highly likely the pandemic will have put a rocket under these terrifying figures. Children’s mental health is the elephant in the classroom for so many schools and local authorities. Mental health is as much a disability as physical, sensory and learning disabilities. Yet too often, it is framed as a nice to have, or something that can be resolved with a bit of talking and a bit of yoga. The lifelong impacts of poor mental health in childhood are huge. The government needs to invest heavily to reverse this crisis and set up frameworks to protect children on an ongoing basis now.”