One in six young people have experienced mental distress for the first time during the pandemic, according to the mental health charity Mind. Its research found that more than half of young people and adults said they were worried about being near others once lockdown restrictions are fully relaxed.
Alison McClymont, a child psychotherapist and psychologist, said she was supporting teenagers who now only wanted to attend school online because there was less pressure to socialise.
“I am seeing many more referrals from parents who are concerned how socially isolated their teen has become,” she said. “This is worrying, given that it may signify a rise in agoraphobic behaviours in this age group… it wouldn’t surprise me if we see this trend [grow] over the next two years.”
The psychologist Helen Spiers, of Mable Therapy, an online counselling service for young people, said children’s social anxiety, health anxiety or depression caused by lockdown could manifest as a fear of leaving the house or going to school.
Her service has seen increased demand from parents and schools since lockdown lifted, with some parents saying their children would not leave their bedrooms and that online counselling was the only way they could get help.
“Just the idea of sitting in a busy classroom again is really terrifying for a lot of children,” she said. “We are seeing an awful lot of social anxiety about going out, seeing other people, having to be in groups, mixing with peers, having to build friendships again and talking in front of others.”
Ms Spiers said children had taken on the message that there was “a killer virus out there” and that if they failed to obey social distancing rules they could inadvertently kill their elderly relatives.
“Children take things very literally and struggle to assess risk, so this is black and white for them,” she said. “They have got the message that the outside world is a dangerous place. Now it’s hard for us to reverse that.”
Depression and low mood caused by the boredom, isolation and lack of structure during lockdown was also contributing to young people not wanting to leave the house. “For some children, it feels much easier to stay in bed and play on the X Box and not have to face the world,” Ms Spiers added.
Deirdre Kehoe, of the mental health charity YoungMinds, said: “Many young people will need an adjustment period to get back into the swing of their lives before coronavirus, especially if they’ve been isolating and staying within their close families for long periods of time. The prospect of leaving home and resuming daily activities may be overwhelming and upsetting.”
She said families needed to give children “time and space to adapt” and work up slowly to bigger events such as visiting the playground or having larger gatherings.
Claire Murdoch, NHS England’s director for mental health said: “The pandemic has turned young people’s lives upside down, and in the year to March 2021 the NHS has stepped up to support them, treating more young people than ever before, working with schools and other local agencies to ensure early intervention and support, including through 183 mental health support teams working with schools across the country.
“Under the NHS Long-Term Plan, an additional 345,000 children and young people every year will receive help with their mental health and wellbeing, and so if you are struggling or have a child who needs help, please continue to come forward and get the care you or they need.”