Scottish hospitals struggle to handle lockdown surge in mentally ill children

Posted: 19th January 2022

Mentally ill children face being sent to England for treatment as Scottish hospitals are struggling to cope with a surge in disorders such as anorexia and self-harm that emerged during lockdown.

Dr Mairi Stark, a paediatrician at the Royal Hospital for Children and Young People in Edinburgh, said every mental health bed in Scotland was full at the weekend.

Distressed children are being turned away by their GPs who say there is no point putting them on a two-year waiting list for mental health treatment, she told the Scottish parliament’s health committee.

Disabled children who were making great strides before lockdown have regressed, and some developed vocal tics or began hurting themselves.

Stark said a large amount of her work is now child psychiatry but that “it is very difficult to get expert help”.

She said: “There are so many children out there in crisis with anxiety, chronic fatigue, anorexia and developmental conditions like ASD [autism spectrum disorder].

“These children are not in school a lot of the time. I know I have children that I am going to refer for ASD or mental health assessments who are going to have to wait ten months to two years for that assessment.”

Stark said a two-year wait for a child who is transitioning to high school effectively robs them of their future.

“That is their lifelong education, that is their career opportunities, that is their health as adults,” she said.

Stark said she can already predict teenage mental health issues in some of her two-year-old patients.

“We must start prioritising children. The Covid pandemic has really affected children,” she said.

“They haven’t been dying in intensive care but their life chances are significantly reduced because we are taking services away from them.

“If you have anorexia you will come to the general paediatric ward and at the moment, certainly over the weekend, we had no young people’s mental health beds available in Scotland.

“We don’t want to send children to England for community services that should be done here.

“How many parents are going to their GP and being told there is no point getting a child and adolescent mental health referral because they’ll just get bounced back?

“There are so many children out there not getting referred because they know they are not going to get seen.”

Stark said children felt abandoned by the Scottish authorities who have given them no opportunity to catch up on key developmental milestones such as school trips.

She said: “Children in second year in school have missed their P7 and S1 residentials, which is probably the only opportunity they had to go away from the family home and do team building and activities with their friends.

“There is no chance for a catch up or opportunities. It is just ‘you missed that — tough luck’.

“These children feel they are not being prioritised by government.

“Businesses say, ‘Great, adults can go to restaurants and nightclubs,’ but what about all the community groups that need funding?

“The third sector spends half their time not looking after children but trying to get funding.”

Susie Fitton, policy manager at Inclusion Scotland, said lockdown was particularly tough for disabled children who lost their social and professional support.

“Parents told us their children were exhibiting behaviour such as self-harm, vocal tics, very low mood and challenging behaviour because of the removal of structure, daily activity, routine face-to-face contact with friends and access to the outdoors . . . They saw their children regressing, particularly during lockdown,” she said.

Fitton said the government should have known the impact lockdown would have on mental health from previous studies on the impact of quarantine during an outbreak of Sars, another coronavirus, in 2003.

She said: “Evidence from previous pandemics such as Sars in 2003 has demonstrated the potential for long-lasting effects on children’s mental health. The length of time children felt lonely predicted mental health problems nine years later, particularly depression.”

Researchers at the University of Toronto studied 129 people quarantined for Sars in Canada and found that nearly one in three developed symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Lucy Hughes, policy development co-ordinator at Who Cares? Scotland, said children living in care or leaving care were also particularly distressed by lockdown.

“We have felt personally the impact of loss, of people who have died far too young that we work with and support,” she said.

“In 2014 we began to create our own record of these people because we feel their lives and their loss has not been recorded in the death stats that we do have around care-experienced young people.

“The invisibility of some of these early deaths we are seeing is sometimes these young people are leaving care before 16, are not being picked up by after care services and are off the radar for social care and others.

“We know who they are because we have those relationships . . . there needs to be a right to health care and mental health care as soon as someone comes into care.

“Don’t wait until the crisis arrives. So many in the mental health community are saying we are having to wait until people are suicidal and at risk of taking their own lives before having these interventions.”


Source: The Times

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