UCL News


Opinion: I've treated children with Covid-19 but I'm more worried about the impact on mental health

12 June 2020

As a paediatrician who works and researches child health, Honorary Associate Professor Dr Lee Hudson (UCL GOS Institute of Child Health) writes that his concern for young people lies not with the effects of the virus itself, but the bigger impact on young people’s mental health.

Dr Lee Hudson

As a paediatrician who works and researches child health, I can say for sure that children have been affected by Covid-19. I myself have looked after young people with the virus, including the small group with the widely reported systemic inflammatory response syndrome. But my concern for young people lies not with the effects of the virus itself, but rather the far bigger impact on young people’s mental health and future prospects.

Even before Covid-19, we knew that one in eight children had a mental health disorder and, for young women aged 17-19, rates were as high as a quarter, half of whom have self-harmed. Over the past few weeks, we have seen children and young people presenting in crisis because of the effects of lockdown on their mental health. My worry is for those who are suffering in silence.

Given that presentations across the board in paediatric services have plummeted, it’s likely that a lot of children are struggling and aren’t getting help. We also therefore don’t know the extent of the problems they are facing.

My colleagues and I in child health are anticipating a deluge of children to present with myriad health problems – but, in particular, a surge in children needing mental health services. It is really important then that these services are ready to meet this demand.

This isn’t as easy as it sounds, especially when you consider that the provision was frequently inadequate before Covid. Add to that the significant concern about the safety of children (some of whom have not been seen for many months), we have a lot of important work ahead of us.

The NHS already had a 10-year plan which placed mental health as a big priority. One part of this was to increase the chance to catch mental health problems at school. The fact that most children remain out of school poses a huge problem.

We have seen some remarkable things happen in the UK throughout the coronavirus pandemic, not least how the NHS quickly cut through red tape to reconfigure itself overnight. We even built a high-class Covid hospital at rapid speed. We have to come together to find similar remarkable solutions to support schools in enabling them to open to more children.

When we look back on Covid-19, we will see that children and young people have been expected to make huge sacrifices. Many will carry the effects on their health and wellbeing with them throughout their lives.

Decisions have been made for them in the national interest. It is now in the national interest, and also the nation’s responsibility, to make them a priority, to mitigate the effects of lockdown and support them in every way we can.

This article was first published in the Telegraph on 12 June.