Barry Carpenter CBE, Professor of Mental Health in Education, Oxford Brookes University.
As I reflect on the impact of Children’s Mental Health Week 2022, I am struck by the power of the week’s key messages. From the Children’s Commissioner reporting a 50 per cent rise in children’s mental health needs since 2017, when the proportion was one in nine, to campaigns run by Mind and Place2Be encouraging young people to seek support, and initiatives from Coram Life Education encouraging children’s self-regulation of their mental wellbeing.
We have seen a rapid erosion in the mental health of our children and young people since the lockdown of March 2020. The Institute of Fiscal Studies (Banks et al., 2020) has reported an 8.7% decline. NHS monitoring is observing spikes in self-harm and eating disorders. These are occurring in children younger than previously known. I have personally watched a young girl of 11, who before March 2020 seemed perfectly healthy, spiral into an eating disorder that by September of that year was diagnosed as anorexia. Eventually, she refused even a sip of water and was admitted to hospital for ‘re-feeding’. By October, she entered a specialist NHS residential facility, self-harming to further reduce her weight.
We have to ask why a much-loved child from a stable family would deteriorate so rapidly with such pervasive, life-threatening mental ill-health. The loss of control this girl experienced over her own life is mirrored in the lives of many children, not in such an extreme form perhaps, but it is, for them, a vivid reality.
Action, support and intervention are crucial. Recent research from Cardiff University (Moore and Morgan, 2021) has indicated that the impact of the pandemic will leave a ‘lifelong footprint’ on the mental health of this generation of children. The Government has recognised to some degree the seriousness of this tsunami of mental health needs (DfE, 2022). Teachers are crucial to our country’s future but the failure to put education at the heart of the levelling up agenda has left it further underfunded.
Our quest as schools must be to restore and rejuvenate the mental wellbeing of all our children. No child can have escaped unscathed from the terror of this pandemic which stalked our communities, taking many, many lives. Therefore, our curriculum journey has to be one of rebuilding our children’s emotional resilience through dynamic, innovative and creative learning experiences, starting (as HMCI, Amanda Spielman says) ‘where each child is at.’ Many children are angry at the world. They deserve an explanation of what coronavirus, pandemic and related terms mean. It is unthinkable that any child should be emotionally scarred for life by the events of the pandemic period.
There is much adversity in our world resulting from the global pandemic. This adversity has permeated our children lives and more than ever we, as teachers, need to have a clear grasp on the implications of adverse childhood experiences (ACE). In this respect the new definition offered by MindEd (2020) is insightful:
‘A child whose mind and body are overly stressed and in fight, flight or freeze mode is not open for learning… ACEs have short and long term negative life-changing consequences across education, health, care, criminal justice and later employment, and life expectancy outcomes.’
The curriculum currently needs to reflect the lived experience of the child. So, to reflect the MindEd statement in a child’s words, when recently conducting some interviews in a primary school, one Year 5 child described lockdown as ‘locked-in.’ A slip of the tongue, but not an inaccurate description. For many children the lockdown period, and periods of self-isolation, must have felt as if they were ‘locked-in’, deprived of their freedom to see friends, be outdoors, run and breathe fresh air. Lockdown is not a natural childhood state, and the constraint and restraint it has imposed on children has felt alien to them, generating feelings of frustration, anxiety, worry and more. As the lockdown progressed and the turmoil of the pandemic raged, many children and young people felt that their hopes for the future were being dashed. And hope is the gift of childhood.
Modern life has been chipping away at children’s happiness over time. A report by the Children’s Society (2020) found that this toxic trend continues. They call on the government to put children’s well-being at the heart of the national recovery from coronavirus. The global pandemic has seriously affected children’s happiness due to the lack of choice they experienced in life.
Relationships are at the heart of that process of recovery. Before we can hope to return to a full curriculum we must recalibrate children’s learning, including the state of their mental health which, if poor, will ultimately undermine their potential attainment and achievement.
We can marshal this creative thinking and innovative practice, and design learning pathways which invite children to rejoin their school communities as active participants, reconnecting with friends and teachers. A new initiative from ACAMH ( Association of Child and Adolescent Mental Health ), partnering with the Chartered College of Teaching, is developing a range of webinars that will ‘ knowledge transfer’ information on key issues in mental health, combined with ‘pedagogy in practice’. ( www.acamh.org).
Compassionate leadership will be key to this process and to re-establishing the wellbeing of the whole school community. Kindness matters too. At a time when the future is uncertain and we feel disconnected, our mental health and wellbeing frail and fragile, the smallest act of kindness can have the biggest effect.
The NHS has acknowledged that ‘having a nurturing and compassionate approach in the classroom that underpins learning, will be helpful in re-generating relationships’ (Chitsabesan, 2020). Schools are generating such responses. They can become congregations of compassion, enabling teachers to restore our children to their rightful state of successful learning and supporting their emotional wellbeing to flourish, with education once more becoming a dignifying process for all children.
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Banks J, Xiaowei X (2020) The mental health effects of the first two months of lockdown and social distancing during the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK.Fiscal Studies 41(3): 685–708.
Children’s Society (2020) The good childhood report. Available at: https://www.childrenssociety.org.uk/sites/default/files/2020-11/Good-Childhood-Report-2020.pdf (accessed 16 February 2022).
Chitsabesan P (2020) Impact of Covid-19 on children and young people’s mental health.Lecture, DfE online Mental Health Conference, 9 July 2020.
Department for Education (DfE) (2022) State of the Nation, 2021: Children and young people’s wellbeing. Available at: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1053302/State_of_the_Nation_CYP_Wellbeing_2022.pdf (accessed 16 February 2022).
MindEd (2020) Adverse childhood experiences: Programme information.Available at: http://www.minded.org.uk/component/details/653614 (accessed 16 February 2022).
Moore G and Morgan K (2021) Healthy futures for young people. Schools Health Research Network: Cardiff University. [AK1] www.shrn.org.uk (accessed 17th February 2022).
Spielman A (2020) Rebuilding.Interview, BBC Radio 4 Today Programme, 6July 2020.