Lockdown has led to a 50 per cent rise in children with mental health problems, NHS data suggests, amid warnings that isolation has been “toxic” for Britain’s youth.

The figures from national research on more than 3,000 families found that one in six children were likely to be suffering from such disorders – up from one in nine three years ago. 

Experts said the statistics were “alarming” showing widespread anxiety among a generation whose lives had been blighted by lockdown.  

They said that children were more likely to be suffering from a range of problems, including anxiety, depression, and phobias. 

The study is based on interviews with 3,570 children and young people face-to-face in 2017 and followed up online in July 2020 when they were aged five to 22.

Professor Tamsin Ford, Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, said: “We do know that loneliness is very toxic, and social isolation is very toxic for the mental health. The amount of change that children and parents reported in the survey and our own experiences of the pandemic would suggest very strongly that changes must relate to that.”

England’s Children’s Commissioner called on the Government to take urgent action to tackle the growing crisis, describing the figures as “extremely alarming”.

The Mental Health of Children and Young People in England 2020 report, published today by NHS Digital, the Office for National Statistics, the National Centre for Social Research, the University of Cambridge and the University of Exeter, looked at the mental health of children and young people in July 2020 compared to the same period in 2017.

Overall, 43 per cent of those aged 11 to 16 said lockdown had made their lives worse, with highest figures among those who were assessed as having a probable mental health disorder.

The research involved surveys which asked parents and children a series of questions, before categorising likelihood of suffering a mental health disorder.

Parents of those aged five to 16 were quizzed, along with children aged 11 to 16 and young people aged 17 to 22.

The rise in probable disorders affected young boys and girls more or less equally, with boys aged five to 16 with a probable disorder increasing from 11 per cent in 2017 to 17 per cent in July 2020, and girls from 10 per cent to 15 per cent. 

But among older age groups aged 17 to 22, young women were much more likely to be affected than young men.

In this older group, 27 per cent of young women and 13 per cent of young men were identified as having a probable mental disorder in 2020.

Anne Longfield, Children’s Commissioner for England said:  “This dramatic increase in the number of children struggling with mental health problems, worsened by the Covid crisis, is extremely alarming. It should shock the Government into immediate action to tackle a growing epidemic.

“While there have been some welcome improvements in children’s mental health services over recent years, clearly the scale of the problem is getting worse, and what has been promised is  just not enough.”

She urged the NHS to “radically upscale” its plans for mental health, saying every school now needs an NHS funded counsellor. 

Dr Bernadka Dubicka, from the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said: “It’s deeply distressing to see such a sharp increase in the number of young people living with a mental illness, more so as lockdown and poverty has made many of their lives significantly worse.

“Services were already struggling to cope with demand before Covid-19, but access has been even worse since lockdown started.

“We are now seeing more patients needing emergency or urgent treatment because they’ve become so ill while waiting to be seen.

“Mental health services are open for business, but plans to roll out mental health support teams in schools must be accelerated if we are to tackle the mental health consequences of Covid-19.

“We also need to see greater availability of services for children and young people in crisis.”

Imran Hussain, from Action on Children, said: “These are truly shocking figures that could have profound and lifelong consequences for this generation of children, the NHS and society. The mental health legacy of the coronavirus is a ticking time-bomb we need to defuse now to lessen the pain, anguish and the need for more intensive support further down the line.”

“Our frontline workers tell us the crisis has damaged the mental health of over three-quarters of the children and young people they support, with some experiencing night terrors, bed-wetting, self-harm and outbursts of anger,” he said. 

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