Five-year-olds are suffering panic attacks about meeting their friends, NHS leaders have said, amid warnings 1.5 million children will need mental health treatment in the wake of repeated lockdowns.
Experts said young children had become increasingly anxious, with some fearful of leaving their homes, amid an explosion in “locked-in trauma” across the country.
Waits of up to four years for help on the NHS have forced a growing number of families to seek help from private psychologists – only to find that they are oversubscribed and unable to take on more patients, a Telegraph investigation reveals.
Leading private therapists said they are taking twice the normal level of calls from worried parents, forcing them to turn away patients, or open waiting lists for the first time in their careers.
How lockdown has affected children's health
Experts said many children were suffering behavioural problems fuelled by lockdowns, social distancing and fear of infection, with many now anxious about everyday social activities.
Forecasts seen by this newspaper state that an extra 1.5 million children and young people will require mental health support “as a direct impact of the pandemic” during the next three to five years. The calculations from the Centre for Mental Health, involving NHS economists, suggest demand will be as much as three times greater than the capacity of mental health services.
Dame Rachel De Souza, Children’s Commissioner for England, said a survey of more than 550,000 children – the largest such poll in history – will show mental health to be the greatest concern of this generation of children.
She said her visits across the country, as part of a forthcoming commission, had found children suffering “locked-in trauma” and struggling to adjust to changes to their lives since the pandemic.
At a meeting run by the NHS Confederation, a number of health officials said they were struggling to find help for their own children, who had become increasingly disturbed since the first lockdown.
One senior figure said: “My five-year-old is housebound because she’s too scared to go away from the house, never mind to school. No-one can even refer me to someone privately as they don’t know of any local child psychotherapists who will see someone of her age.”
Another told how her young daughter, now undergoing counselling, had a panic attack about going on a “play date”, after a year of enforced lockdowns and social distancing.
How has your well-being/mental health changed since the start of the academic year?
Dame Rachel told the meeting: “I’ve been around the country and seen those sad little faces … putting their arms around their friends as they tell me about having their trauma from losing a grandparent, not being able to go to a funeral. Coming out of lockdown and not knowing how to make friends anymore, not knowing how to talk to anyone else,” she said.
“Everyone is on edge,” she said, warning of a “locked-in trauma” affecting swathes of young people, at the session last week.
The UK’s largest private mental health partnership, Clinical Partners, is now holding 85 per cent more private appointments for children than in 2019.
Before Covid struck, most private child mental health experts were typically able to fit in patients for a first appointment within one or two weeks. But the pandemic has caused a surge in mental health problems in young people, with one in six under-18s now thought to have a diagnosable condition, such as anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder or eating disorders.
The rise in demand has heaped pressures on the NHS Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services, with waiting lists for a first appointment as long as four years in some areas.
During the 12 months since the first lockdown, 420,504 children and young people have received NHS treatment for mental health problems, an 11 per cent rise in two years.
But experts say this is just a tiny proportion of those who need help.
Child psychologist Maryhan Baker has seen demand for her services double in recent months, with average waiting times jumping from two weeks to nearly four months.
“I’m working longer hours and more evenings to fit more people in but the demand is beyond my own individual capability,” she said.
Numbers to call
She said many parents who approached her for help had been warned by GPs “not to bother” waiting for an NHS appointment.
“It’s going to get worse before it gets better. There are a lot of children who were maybe just a bit anxious before the pandemic presenting now with compulsions, eating disorders, self-harm and other control behaviours,” she said.
Consultant psychologist Dr Elena Touroni said waiting times for children’s services at her practice, The Chelsea Psychology Clinic, had grown by at least 50 per cent.
On Tuesday, NHS England will promise an extra £40m for children’s mental health services.
NHS England director for mental health Claire Murdoch said: “The pandemic has turned young people’s lives upside down, and while in some areas of the country staff are now treating more young people than ever before, the NHS has worked with schools and other local agencies to ensure early intervention and support, including through 183 mental health support teams working with schools across the country.”