Recent figures have shown how the past two years have had a profound impact on the emotional wellbeing of our young people. As we mark Children’s Mental Health Week, CEO of Extern Danny McQuillan reflects on how life has changed due to the Coronavirus pandemic. 

It’s said that in times of crisis, it is always children who suffer the most. While the events of the past two years have affected all our lives, that is indeed true for the youngest and most vulnerable in our society. 

Much has been said of the effects which the Coronavirus pandemic has had on our economy, our careers and our physical health, all of which can to one extent or another be measured in terms of their impact and their recovery. But how deep an effect has it had on our mental health and, more importantly, on that of our children? 

A report released this week by the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY) reveals there has been a 24% increase in referrals to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) between 2019/20 and 2020/21 for young people presenting during a mental health crisis.

Last November, 451 children were waiting over nine weeks for their first appointment with services, a substantial increase from March that same year, when the figure was 167. 

Before Covid had even hit our shores, though, the state of children’s mental health here was an area which, in school report parlance, “needed more work”. Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) were given less than 8% of the mental health budget in Northern Ireland, while 57% of young people who expressed concerns about their mental health were not seeking any help. 

And this was certainly in keeping with the experience of many of Extern’s frontline teams, who every year support thousands of young people and families struggling with issues such as poor mental health, family breakdown, and low educational attainment, among others. 

As one of the limited number of voluntary agencies who were able to keep our services open throughout the Covid pandemic, from the very outset we in Extern saw at first hand the impact which the temporary closure of schools, youth services and sporting clubs had on young people. 

Routine is critical to young people’s development, as it gives a sense of purpose to the day and establishes boundaries. As the ‘novelty factor’ of lockdown wore off, many found themselves drifting away into despondency and lack of motivation, in turn making it harder to engage with learning and setting realistic goals.

Working parents, starved of the time to devote to schooling and with few external outlets to offer, were resigned to doing the best they could to keep their children engaged. Online gaming and social media became a lifeline to many. 

Added to this was the loss of their social circles – the importance of which cannot be overstated – and the natural instinct of some young people to wish to congregate gave many a ‘bad press’. 

As the lockdown affected household finances – whether through loss of earned income or disruption to benefits – many young people also found themselves facing increasingly poorer living conditions as their families were forced to contemplate shortages in food, electricity or gas, the very same issue which has been brought to national attention by the footballer Marcus Rashford. 

While a return to face-to-face engagement marked a positive step in the path out of lockdown, for many young people it only added to the anxiety they faced. Our frontline teams reported groups who had bonded so well online feeling as strangers to one another when brought together physically for the first time.

Quite simply, they had forgotten how to ‘be together’ in person. Likewise, we have found many young people deeply anxious about returning to a traditional classroom setting, to school corridors and buses packed with their peers. 

Anxieties over cancelled exams undoubtedly impacted on young people too, and many have experienced greater demands from colleges and universities on acceptance grades, due to predicted grades having been used as an alternative. 

Just as poverty and deprivation have always done, Covid too has been ‘stealing quietly’ from our young people, not least in those missed milestones of their youth – birthday parties, school trips, first relationships and visits to bars, nightclubs, festivals and gigs. 

Events like Children’s Mental Health Week matter because they provide an opportunity for us to reflect on our younger generation, on the hardships they have faced and the resilience they have shown in getting through it without the benefit of life experience and emotional maturity which the older generations can often take for granted. 

Perhaps too it can allow us a greater and more sensitive understanding of our young people, and an appreciation of the value they bring to our communities, and to our lives. So too can we develop an understanding of how lack of opportunity can have a detrimental impact on their lives. 

We may be over the worst of the pandemic for now, but we must be prepared for what awaits us in the years ahead. Only then, when our young people have grown, will we know the true cost of Covid. 

Children’s Mental Health Week runs until Sunday, February 13th. For details on Extern’s range of youth and mental health services, visit www.extern.or