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10 February 2022

Children’s mental health during the Covid-19 pandemic

5 mins

One of the most visible impacts of the pandemic has been empty classrooms. For long periods, nearly the entire school-age population connected to lessons from home, or went without any education at all.

Doubtless, this has been hard on everyone involved. Teachers have had to find new ways of working in very challenging circumstances, and teachers’ unions have reported that nearly a third sought medical help for either their mental or physical health during the pandemic. For their part, parents have had to either make sure children are engaging with their learning, or act as teachers while schools got a grip with the mechanics of going digital, with the only upside being a plethora of viral videos of children interrupting meetings and media interviews with predictably charming results.

However, some of those most profoundly impacted will be the children and young people themselves. Whilst some will have taken to this new situation quite well, others have found it exceedingly challenging.

Emerging or worsening mental health difficulties amongst children

Research by the universities of Essex, Surrey and Birmingham found a significant spike in children’s mental health difficulties either emerging or worsening through Covid-19. Perhaps of even greater concern, they found that whilst the situation improved when schools reopened, it did not return to pre-pandemic levels, and has remained stubbornly present ever since.

This can be for a range of reasons. Some children have gone without support for their special educational needs and disabilities (SEND) whilst learning from home, and that is not something that can be simply switched off and then switched back on without consequence. We are consequently seeing young people with SEND not successfully returning to school after the pandemic.

It is not just children with existing SEND who are affected. Many children and young people have either had their mental health decline or seen the emergence of new difficulties they had not previously experienced, because of their isolation or because of grief and trauma experienced throughout lockdown.

Mental ill-health leading to unjust exclusion

This is an urgent issue, as a child’s mental health can be a fundamental block to their engagement with their education. On top of the inevitable pain that is caused by untreated mental ill-health, it can also cause their behaviour to change which can lead to them getting into trouble for disrupting the learning of others. In the most severe cases, this can lead to a temporary or permanent exclusion from school.

Whilst the law says that a permanent exclusion should not happen as a result of somebody’s mental health, the statistics show that children with social, emotional and mental health needs (SEMH), which is a recognised form of special educational needs (SEN), are dramatically more likely to be excluded than their peers. In the experience of our specialist education lawyers, this is typically because schools either do not take preventative action to address mental health whilst a young person is still in school, or because a child’s behaviour deteriorates whilst they are waiting for intervention. Even the most supportive schools can find themselves powerless to secure the help children need, with resources being so limited.

This is why it is so concerning that waiting lists for vital mental health treatment for children and young people are increasing and demand is outstripping supply at a dangerous rate. In 2019, nearly 600 children experienced waiting times for assessments by Children and Adolescent Mental Health Service (CAMHS) in excess of a year, and thousands more waited many months. This issue is compounded by the fact that, for many, an assessment by CAMHS is a gateway to a range of other interventions that may be necessary for them to successfully stay in, or reengage with, school.

When exclusion does result, it can have fundamental and life-changing impacts on the children involved. Exclusions can worsen a child’s mental health, dramatically undermine their academic prospects and expose them to physical harm and even criminal exploitation by organised gangs.

Looking ahead

Every child has a right to a suitable education. It is also in everybody’s interests that every child and young person can have their needs addressed so they can stay and thrive in school. It is neither right nor sustainable for us to continue to ignore the crisis in children’s mental health. We risk creating an education system that leaves whole swathes of the population behind.

The government should put children’s mental health front and centre during the long-awaited SEND review. This review is likely to recommend sweeping reforms of the SEND system and is an opportunity to ensure that we support all children to fulfil their potential, and transition successfully into adulthood.

For children or their families struggling to get support for their mental health, they should seek advice about whether their legal rights are being met, and whether action can be taken to secure the support they need.

Our specialist Education law team can offer expert advice in relation to the issues discussed in this blog. Visit our web page here for more information about our services, or get in touch by completing our enquiry form

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