As the school year begins, drug prescriptions are skyrocketing
Stephen Fry’s recent piece in the Telegraph, reflecting on the damage done to the mental health of children and young people as a result of lockdown, could not have come at a better time. As the new school year begins across England, we could well be sitting on a mental health time bomb for children. Policies over the last 18 months have resulted in months of educational disruption, loneliness, and social isolation for the young.
This is not just limited to school aged children. For those at university who started their degrees in 2019, this September many will be entering their final year, having never enjoyed a full year of face-to-face teaching. Instead, since the start of the pandemic, they have been subjected to such indignities as being locked in halls (including fire escapes being tied shut to prevent them leaving), police searches, and even being told to “wait behind” in the event of a fire, if self isolating — all with the supposed aim of preventing covid.
These policies and the attitudes underpinning them are reflected in increasingly poor mental health in young people. In a startling statistic, it was reported this week that during 2020, 231,791 prescriptions for antidepressants were issued to children between the ages of 5-16 — a record figure, according to the NHS. Among primary school children, the number of prescriptions issued has risen by 20% while those for secondary school pupils rose 23%.
A recent report by Mind backs up these chilling figures. In a survey of young people suffering from mental health problems, they found that 51% said their mental health had got much worse since March 2020, and heartbreakingly, 44% reported rarely or never feeling optimistic about the future.
Meanwhile, repeated exaltations to “protect the NHS” may well have had a predictably damaging effect, with 46% of young people saying they were reluctant to seek help for their mental health because they were worried about overburdening the health service during a pandemic.
Young people and children have sacrificed enough during the pandemic and deserve adults making sure they have the opportunity to enjoy a good education, and to have a chance of a normal childhood, in return. We owe it to them to make sure services and help are on hand to bring them back to good health.
In the Mind survey, there was, thankfully, a bright spot. While there was some worry about beginning to socialise in person again, 52% of young people stated they thought their mental health would improve once restrictions eased, with 59% looking forward to enjoying school, college or university again.
As schools and universities reconvene in England, adults should reflect on how important this is for young people. Education is not just about grades and exams, but about the time spent with classmates, and the experience of socialising with others. Rather than young people being an afterthought whose education and freedom can be forfeited to combat Covid, we should be prioritising them — and stop viewing our youth as just a means to an end.
Amy Jones is an anonymous doctor working in the NHS, who has a background in Philosophy & Bioethics. You can follow her on Twitter at @skepticalzebra