Britain’s youngsters are scarred by post-pandemic anxiety

I recently met a child psychologist who says she is seeing a new problem: previously well-adjusted children refusing to go to school. One mother says her nine-year-old is afraid to leave her alone because he fears she won’t cope. Others stay in their bedroom because that’s the only place they feel in control.

As Covid restrictions end in Britain, many of us are struggling with the overhang and none more than the young. This generation is now suffering much higher levels of anxiety than any other. It’s time to think about what the restrictions did to them – and how much of it was justified. Adults, if we’re lucky, can shrug this off as a small sliver of our lifetime experience. For children and teenagers, this period of fear and uncertainty has overshadowed a significant proportion of their lives.

They missed out on school; were cut off from friends; told they could be harboring an invisible virus that might endanger their families; saw their parents become distressed, in some cases, abusive. Teenage eating disorders are now at catastrophic levels, both in England and the US. That’s no surprise: food is one thing young people feel they can control when the world feels threatening.

Cold statistics slide off the page, and in a world beset by bad news it can be hard to take any more. But I am increasingly infuriated by those who sneer that the “snowflake” generation throws around the word “depression” like confetti. The suffering is real.

Even those of us whose children have emerged from the pandemic in relatively good shape are aware of how lucky we are – and how thin the ice may be. The poor are the hardest hit, but the middle class is discovering that their wealth cannot necessarily insulate their children. One in 10 consultant psychiatrist posts is vacant, with the highest shortages in addiction, eating disorders and child and adolescent services.

It was the elderly who were most physically vulnerable to Covid-19. But post-crisis youngsters seem to be afflicted by something we usually associate with older people: loneliness. One-third of 16 to 25 year-olds have never felt more alone, according to the Prince’s Trust NatWest Youth Index, and 40 per cent are anxious about socializing. This survey has been asking the same questions for a decade and it’s stark to see how “emotional health” has plummeted from 67 points on their index in 2009 to 57 in 2022.

It is also alarming to see teenagers saying they prefer to be on TikTok or Instagram than to meet real people. Screen time swelled during the pandemic and the usual rites of passage were demolished: football matches, driving tests, exams, birthday parties, end-of-school celebrations, graduation ceremonies – all were sacrificed to Covid prevention. Those who are sitting A-levels this summer have no experience of having taken national exams before. The government’s dither and delay over examinations in 2020, at the height of the crisis, placed an additional stress on teenagers that was wholly avoidable.

There was little the politicians could have done about either the deadly nature of the virus, or the inevitable uncertainties that came with it. But looking back, too little attention was paid to the possible mental health implications of Covid policy.

In 2020, working as a temporary advisor to the Department of Health, I remember asking if we were doing the right thing by cutting off elderly care home residents from contact with relatives. Was there a risk, I wondered, that we might protect people from Covid-19, only to find that isolation from loved ones would cause them to lose the will to live? No one at the table had considered that before, and none of us really knew how to balance the risks.

We are all keen to put Covid behind us. But we do need to ask, openly and calmly, what might have been done better to support the nation’s psychological health. It would be very useful to know, for example, about the short and long-term effects of the government’s public messaging. At the outset, politicians feared bolshie Brits would not comply with restrictions. But long after we had done so, we were assailed by dire warnings of what might happen if we didn’t “stay home”, “keep safe”, “wash your hands” and so on.

Personally, I felt that the campaign turned ugly last January, when someone decided to up the ante. Everywhere we went we were assailed by black and white posters depicting terrified hospital patients wearing oxygen masks. “Look him in the eyes” one read, “and tell him you always keep a safe distance.” My youngest child was really disturbed by this.

The state’s psychological strategies proved tremendously effective; perhaps too effective. It now needs to provide treatment for those who were left in a state of fear and anxiety by the experience. Doctors argue we are in a second pandemic, a mental health crisis which is overwhelming a system that was already threadbare. The Royal College of Psychiatrists is encouraging junior doctors to specialize in psychiatry, but that is not enough. We urgently need to recruit counselors from all over the world and support charities that are doing sterling work.

We can all look forward to getting back to normal. But the slow retreat from Covid leaves behind a wake of grief, disorientation and loneliness – the most of all for the young.

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