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Key Points in this Briefing

In the UK, mental health disorders are the leading cause of child disability, and there are high unmet child mental health needs. The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified known risk factors for child mental health disorders and disrupted support structures, leading to concerns that children’s mental health may be negatively affected.

There has been limited research published to date about the mental health of children during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most studies that have been undertaken have found that, on average, children’s mental health had worsened during the pandemic, although the majority of children remained wellAssessment of NHS data has shown that rates of referrals to child mental health services are now at record highs. Evidence suggests that those at greatest risk of poor mental health during the pandemic include children with previous mental health or learning difficulties and those at socioeconomic disadvantage. 

The Government response has included £79m to accelerate previous plans to improve children’s wellbeing and mental healthcare provision in education and healthcare settings, as well as initiatives to address the wider determinants of mental health. However, many stakeholders highlight that these initiatives are likely to be insufficient to meet the needs of most children with, or at risk of, poor mental health, and suggest the following priorities:

Child mental health stakeholder priorities for policy

Overall

  • Strengthen the child mental health policy response so it matches the scale of child mental health need and children’s own priorities; make child mental health a top cross-Government department and NHS focus, with ambitious, robust and integrated policies.

 Research

  • Invest in high quality child mental health research, including more frequent national surveys, intervention studies and healthcare evaluation.
  • Optimise access to available NHS data for research.
  • Improve integration of data, including from research, healthcare, education and other settings.

Prevention in the population

  • Prioritise maintaining and improving children’s access to educational, social and recreational activities.
  • Implement a whole-school approach to address child wellbeing and invest in a comprehensive education recovery plan.
  • Build on the cross-Government department approach by promoting child wellbeing and addressing wider determinants of poor child mental health in all aspects of policy.

Interventions for children with mental health difficulties

  • Improve resources and address staff shortages in services that care for the mental health of children, from primary care to specialist services.
  • Expand early support services in accessible community settings, which aim to intervene before symptoms become severe and impairing, and ensure efficient integration with other services.
  • Implement interventions that are most likely to be effective after carefully evaluating the evidence base and listening to children and families’ preferences.

Acknowledgements

POSTnotes are based on literature reviews and interviews with a range of stakeholders and are externally peer-reviewed. POST would like to thank consultees and peer reviewers for kindly giving up their time during the preparation of this briefing, including:

Members of the POST Board*

Andy Bell, Centre for Mental Health*

Professor Barry Carpenter, Oxford Brookes University*

Professor Cathy Creswell, University of Oxford*

Department of Health and Social Care*

Dr Bernadka Dubicka, Royal College of Psychiatrists

Dr Mina Fazel, University of Oxford*

Professor Tamsin Ford, University of Cambridge*

Nick Harrop, YoungMinds*

Professor Vivian Hill and Dr Melernie Meheux, British Psychological Society*

Matthew Hopkinson, Department for Education*

Martin Lennon, Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England

Dr Elaine Lockhart, Royal College of Psychiatrists*

Dr Gordana Milavić and Martin Pratt, Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health*

NHS England*

Dr Dasha Nicholls, Imperial College London

Minnie Rinvolucri, Mind*

Claire Robson and representatives from the Life Course and Health Inequalities Team and Public Mental Health Team, Public Health England*

Royal College of General Practitioners*

Professor Emily Simonoff, King’s College London*

Professor Sir Terence Stephenson, University College London*

Professor Russell Viner, University College London

Ruby Livings Waterworth and colleagues, Youth Access

Emily Widnall, University of Bristol

Dr Katherine Young, King’s College London

* denotes people and organisations who acted as external reviewers of the briefing.


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