Social anxiety and loneliness rife among children in post-Covid world

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

Feelings of anxiety in social situations and difficulties with peer interactions have become commonplace among children and young people facing mental health challenges.

Eight in 10 of the children and young people who were supported by mental health charity Place2Be last year said they felt anxiety in social situations; 65% said they had difficulties with peer interactions.

Place2Be works with schools across the country supporting whole-school mental health and offering targeted counselling. It reaches more than 240,000 pupils a year.

The data was collected as part of the assessment that takes place when a child or young person is referred via school, parent, or self-referral for in-school counselling with Place2Be.

However, it reflects what many schools have reported anecdotally – that Covid-19 lockdown and regular self-isolation have had a negative impact on friendships and classroom connections. A key priority for many schools since has been helping pupils improve their social skills and interactions.

The concerns have been echoed in the government’s state of the nation report into children and young people’s mental health, also published this week (DfE, 2023).

It reports a “mixed picture” on children and young people’s personal wellbeing. It finds that while wellbeing on most measures “remained constant” during the 2021/22 academic year, “anxiousness among both primary and secondary-age pupils appears to have increased and is higher than in 2020/21”.

The study also reports increases in feelings of loneliness during the last academic year – a year which was blighted by significant self-isolation due to Covid infection.

Incidence of loneliness seems to increase with age and is much more likely to be reported by those already suffering with a mental health condition. In 2022, 5.2% of children aged 11 to 16 and 12.6% of young people aged 17 to 22 reported often or always feeling lonely.

The figures have been published to mark Children’s Mental Health Week – now in its ninth year – which is organised by Place2Be and runs until Sunday (February 12).

It comes after the NHS recently published figures showing that almost one in five (18%) children and young people aged from 7 to 16 have a probable mental health condition, rising to 25.7% of 17 to 19-year-olds – one in four.

The NHS figures echoed concerns about loneliness. They also highlight a gender reversal as children grow up. At primary age more boys than girls seem to suffer from mental health disorders and yet by age 17 this has flipped to more girls than boys.

The NHS found that among those aged seven to 10, prevalence of a probable mental disorder was nearly twice as high in boys (19.7%) as in girls (10.5%).

However, rates were similar in boys (18.8%) and girls (22%) at age 11 to 16 while among 17 to 24-year-olds, the prevalence was much higher in young women (31.2%) than young men (13.3%).

The theme of this year’s Children’s Mental Health Week is “meaningful connections” and a range of resources have been published to support schools and families to take part in activities focused on building connections, including exploring emotions through art, discussing themes of loneliness, creating puzzle pieces and paper chains, and encouraging discussion about friendship inside and outside the classroom.

CEO of Place2Be, Catherine Roche, said: “In one-to-one sessions with our counsellors, children are telling us how difficult they find it to form and maintain friendships.

“Forming positive relationships is fundamental to our mental wellbeing and this has been significantly disrupted in recent years. While the statistics around children’s mental health problems are stark, I am optimistic. Through targeted intervention across the school, we can help children and young people become confident, resilient and able to cope with life’s challenges. Disconnection and loneliness should not be a part of school life.”

The National Association of Head Teachers said the research findings echoed what its members are seeing at the chalkface.

General secretary Paul Whiteman explained: “School leaders and their staff work tirelessly to identify mental health needs and support children’s wellbeing, but they are not mental health specialists, and they need to be able to draw on the expertise and support of specialist services.

"It is unfair on staff and pupils for schools to be left to struggle to paper over the cracks left by an unacceptable postcode lottery in early support and mental health treatment in which many children face long waits for treatment or are told their problems are not bad enough to warrant help.

“We welcome the introduction of mental health support teams working with schools, but the government must speed up their roll-out and go further by investing in counselling services in all schools.”

Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, added: “During the lockdowns caused by the pandemic, routines and support mechanisms disappeared overnight. This has taken its toll on pupils’ mental health, heightening isolation and anxiety as well as other issues such as bereavement.”

She said that an “excessive and high-stakes” exams system, online risks, and soaring rates of child poverty were also to blame.

She continued: “The government has not put anywhere near enough resources into dealing with these problems. Its Online Safety Bill is still not enacted despite being under development for several years. Schools have been critically underfunded for many years. Local children’s mental health support services frequently have very long waiting lists.

“The exam system must be reformed to make it more proportionate and less reliant on a high-pressure end-of-course exam factory, and the scourge of child poverty must be tackled – with an immediate step to extend the provision of free school meals to all pupils from families in receipt of Universal Credit.”

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