Study reveals a third of children and young people experience increased mental health difficulties during lockdown

Children’s charity Barnardo’s warns that lockdown could affect the mental health and wellbeing of a generation as at least a third of children and young people report they have experienced increased difficulties.

In a poll conducted by YouGov, the UK’s leading children’s charity asked 4,000 children and young people aged eight-24 across Great Britain how they had been feeling during lockdown. At least a third said they had experienced an increase of mental health and wellbeing issues including stress, loneliness and worry.

And, as frontline workers in Barnardo’s services report that rising mental health problems because of COVID-19, loneliness and isolation are their biggest concerns for the children and young people they work with, the charity is warning that lockdown could affect a whole generation of children and young people.

The claim comes as Barnardo’s shares initial findings of its new research examining the impact of COVID-19 and the lockdown on children and young people – including the YouGov poll plus surveys of its frontline staff and service users.

More than two-fifths (41%) of children and young people polled by YouGov said they were more lonely than before lockdown, more than a third said they were more worried (38%), more sad (37%) or more stressed (34%). A third also said they had more trouble sleeping, which could have a knock on effect on school work, behavioural issues and family life.

Boredom (51%), worry (28%) and feeling trapped (26%) were the top three emotions experienced by children and young people in lockdown.

Nearly three-quarters (74%) said they missed going into school or college which is an important factor in supporting children’s mental health and wellbeing. Closures of schools, nurseries and other support services for children and young people also mean they are not able to access essential early support.

Barnardo’s says the government’s £1bn catch up premium for vulnerable children’s education is a welcome move but there needs to be additional investment to support children and young people holistically – including with their mental health and wellbeing – not just academically. This should be made available over the summer holidays as well as term time to mitigate the impact of school closures.

The results gathered in the YouGov poll echo what Barnardo’s is seeing in its 1,000 services for vulnerable children and young people across the UK.

More than two-thirds (69%) of Barnardo’s staff working directly with children and families  say they’re supporting people with an increase in mental health issues due to the COVID-19 crisis.

Anxiety and disturbed sleep were the top two mental health difficulties reported by Barnardo’s staff for the children and young people they work with.

The leading children’s charity has also been hearing what vulnerable children and young people in its services- who are some of the country’s most hidden and overlooked – have been finding hardest about coronavirus.

Preliminary findings from an in-depth piece of qualitative research with more than 100 Barnardo’s service users show that many young people were struggling with their mental health because the things that help them stay well aren’t available, or the lockdown was making existing difficulties even harder.

This research involved young people who are often less likely to be heard, including care leavers, children in care, young carers, young people with disabilities, young parents, refugees and young people with experience of sexual abuse.

Many were already reliant on services but lockdown and changes to support have meant they have become even more vulnerable and isolated from help.

Barnardo’s is concerned that lockdown is leading to an increase in mental health issues among children and young people who are already vulnerable as a lack of social contact and being ‘hidden’ from teachers and other trusted adults adds to the significant risks they already experience.

Childhood trauma – or adverse childhood experiences – like experiencing poverty, sexual or domestic abuse or neglect – can have a lifelong impact on children’s mental health.

The coronavirus pandemic will mean even more children could experience traumatic events as more families are plunged into poverty, domestic abuse rises and more children suffer bereavement.

According to NHS Digital, before coronavirus, one-in-eight five-19 year-olds already had a diagnosable mental health condition but too often they were having to reach crisis point before they received any help.

Early intervention and support is vital, especially as the coronavirus pandemic has put extra pressure on our children and young people, and  many critical support services are no longer available to them during lockdown.

Barnardo’s service users have found the lack of social contact with friends and family very difficult, as well as not being able to do ‘normal things’. Increased stresses like more family conflict or caring responsibilities have also added to their burden, which is unlikely to be eased because of a lack of social support.

In the YouGov poll more than two thirds (68%) of children and young people said not seeing their friends had been one of the three most difficult things about lockdown.

Nearly a quarter (74%) said they found it harder to maintain their friendships during lockdown and nearly half (47%) thought they would still be more isolated from their friends once things had started to return to normal and shops and schools were open.

In the biggest ever survey of Barnardo’s services staff, reduced social contact for the children and young people they work with was their most commonly cited worry, with 83% saying it is a concern and more than a quarter (26%) saying it was their single biggest concern. The next most commonly cited worries among practitioners was followed by children and young people experiencing boredom (76%) and the impact of coronavirus on service users’ mental health (75%).

The findings all form part of Barnardo’s Big Conversation – a wide-ranging piece of research and engagement across children and young people in the general population as well as in Barnaro’s services and the charity’s own frontline workers – which aims to find out how coronavirus and the lockdown have affected children and young people across the country.

Barnardo’s services are adapting to the current crisis and providing more services to families remotely, but the charity also wants to make sure the most vulnerable and disadvantaged families have access to support their mental health and wellbeing at home.

The charity says it needs help to get vital resources to front line staff after nearly two-fifths (35%) of its practitioners who are supporting someone with their mental health said they don’t have what they need to support vulnerable CYP with mental health difficulties.

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, Barnardo’s is leading a coalition of charities to help vulnerable children most impacted with online counselling, therapy and face-to-face support for those at risk of criminal exploitation, as part of the Department for Education’s new See, Hear, Respond programme.

Barnardo’s Chief Executive Javed Khan said:

“The COVID-19 pandemic is a traumatic event that has led to increased anxiety and stress for everyone, but especially children and young people who have had their lives turned upside down by the crisis.

“Our polling results show that more than one in three children are already experiencing mental health problems. Once you add other vulnerabilities into the mix with lockdown and social isolation, the impact could be catastrophic for a whole generation. Domestic abuse has skyrocketed and poverty is increasing – meaning children are facing traumatic events that could have a lifelong impact. BAME children are more likely to have lost family members to the crisis and to be struggling with anxiety.

“School closures mean many of these children have been ‘hidden’ from teachers and other trusted adults for months, who would normally play a key role in identifying needs and providing support. That’s why we are calling on the government to invest in a programme to address children’s mental health and wellbeing, both over the summer and for when schools return in the autumn.

“In the meantime, Barnardo’s has been adapting our services and continuing to support vulnerable children right through the pandemic – whether face to face, on the phone or through messaging apps. Donations to our coronavirus crisis appeal are helping us to reach those who need us must.”

To give to Barnardo’s emergency coronavirus appeal visit