Families describe living on ‘coronacoaster’
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Parents and psychologists have spoken of the mental health struggles children have faced during lockdown – and as the return to school looms anxiety for some is on the rise.
While the coronavirus pandemic has made existing mental health issues worse for some young people due to the lack of routine, isolation and loneliness, for others anxiety connected to school has been eased.
One parent, from the Framlingham area, described the “coronacoaster” her family has been on; her 16-year-old daughter has been suffering with a “dangerous” level of anxiety because of the loss of school, while her 15-year-old son has been much happier at home.
Dr Beth Mosley, a psychologist who specialises in working with young people, said referrals to the Suffolk Children and Young People’s Emotional Wellbeing Hub were increasing because of “anticipatory anxiety” over going back to school in September.
MORE: Mental health services expect 20pc rise in demand due to Covid Dr Mosley, who is employed by Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust (NSFT), said it was important to acknowledge re-engaging with life after lockdown was going to be really hard for different people in different ways.
“We all have a challenge we will have to face, but by going through it and being brave and getting the right support we will come out of the other side and life will be better.”
She added: “We cannot avoid going back to school forever.”
The number of referrals of young people to NSFT in Suffolk over the lockdown period of March to June was actually lower than the same period last year (by 1,053 referrals), which Dr Mosley said could be due to families not taking issues to GPs or a fall in school-based anxiety.
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A sense of ‘bereavement’
Dr Mosley said some young people may feel grief or bereavement at the experiences and opportunities lost because of the pandemic.
She said: “When I think about 16 plus [age group], I do really feel for them.
“I think they have lost some of the significant points in their life: prom, graduation, completing their exams. Young people work so hard to do these pieces of work.
“For the 16-19 plus [group], their employment opportunities may be significantly reduced.”
She said some may decide against going to university because the experience won’t be the same and young people on the verge of adulthood were having to stay in the parental home.
Speaking about her 16-year-old daughter, the mum-of-two mentioned above said “it has been an unexpected death of this part of her life”.
She said her daughter has cried at least once every single day during lockdown.
Both her daughter and son, as well as her, all suffered with anxiety before the crisis.
Another parent said: “My son’s depression and anxiety have become worse. He refers to self-harm and ending his life more frequently than before the pandemic.”
Worry, sadness and loneliness
A recent survey by YoungMinds found 80% of young people who took part felt the Covid-19 crisis had made their existing mental health problems worse.
Psychologist Dr Tamara Scully, who also specialises in young people and works for NSFT, said: “Generally across the board children are reporting an increase in worry and sadness and loneliness.
“I suppose one of the things I would say about that is that some increase in these difficulties is to be expected.
“I think the losses children and young people have experienced are pretty significant actually.
“They have lost their structure and routine that comes with school, they have lost a lot of social contact, particularly face-to-face contact.”
She said while many were staying connected through social media, lack of social connection with their peers was still a key concern for young people.
“And we know from really solid research that connection with others is so fundamental to emotional development and brain development,” she said.
Dr Scully added youngsters had also lost a sense of belonging and purpose during lockdown.
But on the flipside, some children who find school a challenge will have noticed an improvement in their mental health.
And Dr Mosley, project lead for the West Suffolk Psychology in Schools Project, added many vulnerable young people who ordinarily struggled with a school environment had been “thriving” in small groups over the past few months.
While schools had been shut to most pupils during lockdown, they still remained open for vulnerable and keyworker children and some year groups returned before the summer break.
What support will there be?
While some young people may really be looking forward to returning to school, for others it will be a more difficult transition.
Dr Mosley said: “The Psychology in Schools Team and other Suffolk services will be working together to provide a package of support to all Suffolk parents, schools and young people around how to cope with and respond to the anxiety that many young people and families will be feeling about returning to school.
“This will include information leaflets, podcasts, pre-recorded training for school staff, assembly and lesson plans that schools can run for students who may be struggling in the first term back.”
Dr Mosley said it was about enabling people to understand that anxiety was a “normal feeling”.
She added they would be helping school staff to identify those really vulnerable young people – who may already be struggling with their mental health and a difficult home life during this crisis – so they can get the best support as early as possible.
Looking after those giving support
Dr Mosley said adults had an important role in helping young people make sense of what is happening to them, their families and communities.
And those people providing the support also need to make sure they are looking after their own wellbeing, she added.
“We have all been traumatised by it [the crisis] in one way or another,” Dr Mosley said.
She said parents tended to set the emotional tone in the home that then rippled down through the family.
“It’s being mindful of what we are bringing into the house and it’s just making sure you are making time to look after yourselves.”
The mum-of-two mentioned above, who asked to be anonymous, said knowing how to support her children was a “massive challenge”.
“I don’t have any answers,” she added.
She said the peer-to-peer support from Parents and Carers Together (PACT) in Suffolk had been “vital”, including when her son was self-harming at the start of lockdown after he and his girlfriend broke up.
Bec Jasper, from PACT, said the organisation had been completely busy supporting families more so over this time than any other.
They have been offering Zoom meetups, youth mental health first aid training, parent-led cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) techniques, the rewind trauma therapy and SPACE programme techniques (supportive parenting for anxious childhood emotions).
“Our outreach service has meant we have been extremely busy supporting parents and carers in whichever means works best for them (email/phone calls/messaging/Zoom),” she said.
Dr Scully said: “For many young people in general this is a time of great uncertainty, but being able to tolerate uncertainty and come out the other side having survived the uncertainty is an incredible opportunity to develop resilience and a really important life skill.”
Dr Mosley said by developing “psychological flexibility,” with the support of good role models, it could enable youngsters to “focus on what they can do, rather than what they have lost and can’t do”.
“But it is natural for them to have that bereavement response, and that’s okay. They are not going to be stuck here forever,” she added.
The anonymous mum-of-two said: “I’m really proud of how my children have adapted and coped. Our young people need to be recognised for how well they have adapted.”
Dr Scully said it was important young people’s voices were heard.
“Letting people feel seen and letting people feel heard is incredibly therapeutic,” she added.
•To contact the Children and Young People’s Emotional Wellbeing Hub call the helpline on 0345 600 2090.
•For the Suffolk Wellbeing Service, which provides advice and support, free courses and webinars for people of all ages, see here.