While seemingly immune to the physical effects of Covid-19, with mercifully few deaths or long-term complications, it seems children’s mental health has deteriorated significantly as a result of the pandemic.

The most commonly quoted study, from NHS Digital advises that the incidence of probable childhood mental health illnesses, in those aged five to 16 and including conditions such as anxiety, depression and conduct disorders, has risen from one in nine in 2017, to one in six in 2020.

Worrying figures indeed. Referrals to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) for eating disorders have more than doubled since the first lockdown, and reports from the front lines advise of children as young as eight being brought to A+E after an episode of self-harm, with presentations in some areas up from one or two per week to one or two a day, typically those regions where lockdowns have been longer, with harsher restrictions and greater disruption to daily life as a result.

While many articles comment on the financial impact of lost schooling on children’s long-term prospects, with an estimated average shortfall of £40,000 in lifetime earnings, a survey by Parentkind UK, a charity representing parent teacher associations, shows mothers and fathers are more concerned about the effect of the pandemic on their children’s happiness and wellbeing as opposed to the effect of lost schooling on educational achievement. 49 per cent of respondents voiced their primary concern being that their children were unable to socialise, 45 per cent reported worries about their children’s mental health, with only 30 per cent siting the disruption of traditional educational services as their foremost worry.

Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health is quoted as saying to the MPs on the Education Select Committee, regarding its effect on children, “When we close schools we close their lives”.

School is much more than a place to learn. It provides a routine five days a week, somewhere to interact not only educationally but also socially with peers. For children living in turbulent or worse abusive environments, it may be their haven of calm in the storm, sometimes the only place where they get a regular meal and emotional warmth. It will come as no surprise that children living with a parent with mental ill health, alcohol or substance abuse have fared worse in the pandemic in respect of their own psychological wellbeing. Perhaps most importantly school provides an arena where presentations of anxiety and depression are usually quickly picked up by teachers trained to look out for the warning signs. Like any physical health concern, it is vital that symptoms of mental ill health are noticed at an early stage, with support and referral to trained professionals provided in a timely manner.

Although provision of services for mental health has historically lagged behind that for the treatment of physical illness, we cannot bemoan the mistakes of the past, only look to the future, now there is greater recognition of the reality of mental illness, reduced stigma toward anyone with a diagnosis, and strong voiced doctors and nurses with a real passion for their chosen specialty.

To any parent reading this article, the most vital message I can give is that no one expects you to diagnose, let alone treat your child, if you suspect that they are struggling mentally. However, as the individual with whom your child will have the most interaction during these times, you are likely to be the person who spots the warning signs first, such as anger, irritability, tearfulness and withdrawal among common presentations of psychological unrest.

Sometimes a simple “are you all right?”, voiced with genuine concern and empathy, may be the way into a significant discussion about how your child is feeling. For adults, one year is very little in the grand scheme of things, but for children it will be a significant proportion of their early years. Those at a notable point in their schooling, such the transition from primary to secondary, or GCSEs, will feel the disruption more acutely, as will any who may be struggling to see an end to the pandemic, or any light at the end of the tunnel.

Reassurance may be difficult to give, particularly if you have been a victim of the pandemic in any way. Children are great observers of parental behaviour. Aspiring to be the best we can be for their sake can be a very tall order, so if you feel your own mental health is suffering, please do not ignore this.