Figures show more than a million children need treatment for serious mental health problems, including eating disorders, in the time since lockdowns were imposed in England.
NHS data analysed by the PA news agency show a 39 percent rise in a year in referrals for NHS mental health treatment for under-18s, to 1,169,515 in 2021 to 2022.
This compares with the previous year of 2020 to 2021, when the figure was 839,570. In 2019 to 2020 there were 850,741 referrals.
From 2020 to early 2022 the UK government imposed multiple COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions.
The England-wide data include children who are suicidal, self-harming, suffering serious depression or anxiety, and those with eating disorders.
Hospital admissions for eating disorders were also found to be increasing among under-18s.
There were 7,719 admissions in 2021/22, up from 6,079 the previous year, and 4,232 in 2019/20, an 82 percent rise across two years.
‘Heightened Sense of Anxiety and Loss of Control’
Elaine Lockhart, chairwoman of the child and adolescent psychiatry faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said the rise in referrals for children and young people reflects a “whole range” of illnesses including psychosis, suicidal thoughts, and severe anxiety disorder.
Lockhart said children and young people’s mental health had been getting worse before the pandemic.
“When the lockdowns and pandemic struck, that really had such a negative effect on a lot of children,” she added.
“Those who had been doing well became vulnerable and those were vulnerable became unwell,” she said.
“And part of that was about children themselves feeling very untethered from the day-to-day life that supports them, but also seeing their own parents struggle, and then that collective heightened sense of anxiety and loss of control we all had really affected children,” said Lockhart.
The data show that anorexia is the most common eating disorder leading to hospital admission among all ages, with 10,808 admissions in 2021/22.
Bulimia is the next most common, with 5,563, while other eating disorders accounted for 12,893 admissions.
Gary Sidley, a retired clinical psychologist and HART member, has warned of the increase in emotional distress of the British people throughout the pandemic via COVID-19 restrictions.
HART was set up by medical and health professionals to share concerns about policy and guidance recommendations relating to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The people who are prone to eating disorders, it is a common theme that they have this kind of inflated desire to try and get control over their life and their environment because they kind of sense that everything is out of control,” Sidley told The Epoch Times.
“And therefore what happens is that they focus on their one narrow aspect, eating, and try and control that. That’s often a key thing underpinning eating disorders,” he said.
“The restrictions generally including lockdowns and the unpredictability of them and the nonsensical nature of them, would have exacerbated that kind of concern about being out of control,” he added.
In 2021 and in September 2022, HART wrote that mounting evidence of harms to children over the past two years suggests that the government response “placed too much weight on the need to protect vulnerable adults at the expense of the less immediately obvious (but more long-term) damage to the well-being and futures of our children and young people.”
“With children confined to their homes and isolated from community life, statutory and third-party services pared back or online, and many strategies used to ameliorate mental health difficulties banned or restricted (eg sport, family connection, school engagement, socialising), many children and young people were left to cope with deteriorating mental health without adequate support,” the group wrote.
“Again, the most disadvantaged children suffered the most,” HART added.
‘The Trends Have Been Going Up’
Agnes Ayton, study lead and chair of the Eating Disorders Faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists said that a number of factors can affect a child’s chance of developing an eating disorder.
This can include genetics, social media, anxiety, and weight-loss advertising.
“The numbers, the trends, are going up. There definitely has been an impact of the pandemic but the trends have been going up since way before then,” she said.
“There is no indication that the figures will go down without a strategy that includes prevention, improved treatment, better access to effective inpatient treatment, and better research facilities,” she added.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “Improving eating disorders services is a key priority and we’re investing £53 million per year in children and young people’s community eating disorder services to increase capacity in 70 community teams across the country.
“We are already investing £2.3 billion a year into mental health services, meaning an additional 345,000 children and young people will be able to access support by 2024—and we’re aiming to grow the mental health workforce by 27,000 more staff by this time too.”