Ireland is facing into a "tsunami" of mental health problems among children as a result of Covid 19, with rising numbers contacting services about being suicidal, anxious and self-harming, an Oireachtas watchdog has been warned.
John Church, chief executive of the Irish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (ISPCC), told TDs and senators the Government must act "very, very quickly" to deal with a significant and sustained demand for help.
“Will there be a tsunami of mental health issues? Yes, I think absolutely,” he said.
Before the Oireachtas sub-committee on mental health, Mr Church said its Childline listening service dealt with 200,040 contacts from children between October 2019 and September 2020.
A one to one therapeutic support service run by the ISPCC — which helps parents and children in distress for up to six months — worked with 458 children over the same period.
“The mental health impact of Covid featured heavily across these services,” he said.
“In the first week of school closures, Childline experienced an instant increase in demand across online, phone and text.”
Daily statistics of deaths and cases had also “played havoc with children’s emotions” and the service was getting calls from children as young as six years of age saying they were “afraid and scared”.
The increased contact was “sustained thereafter” with many children seeking support online as “they may have felt as though their conversation could be overheard at home”.
Issues raised included emotional and mental health well being, suicide and self harm.
“Many children told us how their feelings of anxiety stemmed from every aspect of their lives. They picked up on what their parents were going through and what was reflected in the news and on social media,” said Mr Church.
“Tensions which had been simmering under the surface in homes arose and in some cases children experienced adverse childhood experiences for the first time.”
Between the closure of schools in March 2020 and the usual end of the school term in June that year, the Childline website saw a surge in children contacting it of “over 100 per cent”.
Between March 2020 and July 2020, the Childline listening services answered more than 600 contacts from children who spoke about suicide.
The impact of “intense Covid restrictions” reintroduced in September 2020 “was felt acutely by children around Christmas time”, who spoke about loss, anxiety and suicide ideation, he said.
The ISPCC’s therapeutic service is “now seeing significant stress around school and peer interactions”.
“Children have become more withdrawn. They are out of the mode of socialising.. they are not quite sure where they fit in anymore,” he said.
Mr Church said they were seeing increased levels of anxiety “with more children feeling they can’t leave their bedroom or their house and can’t go to school or back to the so-called normal”.
In the year since October 2020, Childline has answered more than 26 children each week who are “actively suicidal, have suicidal feelings or who have previously attempted suicide”.
Over the same period there have been 923 contacts speaking about self harm.
Mr Church said he anticipates children’s mental health continuing to suffer as a result of by Covid 19 “for some time to come” as anxiety levels and tensions had gone “through the roof”.
Government investment in mental health services for children was less than half that recommended by the World Health Organisation, while waiting lists to be seen by a specialist "are unacceptable".
“We really need to act very, very quickly and start looking after children and young people, because these adverse events will impact society later in life,” he added.
Susan Connolly, chief executive of Barnardos, told the sub-committee it worked with almost 18,000 children and families last year with "behavioural, emotional, educational, physical and social needs".
“Since the onset of Covid, children had to stop doing all the vital things that are part of their everyday life, which are crucial to their well being” with the closure of schools and other activities having “impacted negatively on their development and mental health”.
Many were living with domestic violence, parental addiction, poor parental mental health as well as acrimonious separations and poverty.
‘Conflict within home’
Covid added to the burden with “parents dealing with worsening mental health, increased substance abuse, and conflict within home... which inevitably led to some parents struggling to cope themselves”.
Barnardos 2021 Back to School found 52 per cent of parents were struggling with increased mental health difficulties, 50 per cent had increased stress at home and 15 per cent were dealing with increased substance abuse.
A “substantial proportion” of parents — 29 per cent — were concerned about the impact it was having on their children.
Some 63 per cent of parents were worried about their children’s emotional development, coping skills and ability to talk about emotions, 58 per cent were worried about children’s stress levels and 57 per cent were worried about their children’s anxiety.
Some 49 per cent of parents of primary school children and 56 per cent of secondary school children were concerned about their children’s social skills, peer relationships and ability to interact with others.
Some 47 per cent of parents of primary school children and 58 per cent of secondary school children were concerned about their children’s loneliness.
Ms Connolly said the transition out of lockdown “continues to be difficult”.
Sub-committee chair and Independent senator Frances Black said the figures presented before the TDs and senators were "shocking altogether".
Laura Keane, a project leader for Barnardos in Limerick, told the sub-committee children were "finding it really difficult to maintain and sustain friendships now they have gone back to school, they have regressed in their social skills, they are struggling to play with friends in the school yard, they're lashing out more, getting into fights more".
“We are seeing children more isolated and withdrawn,” she said.
The charity has seen a “marked increase” in children with “severe anxiety and indicators of depression” while there has also been a “significant increase” in parents dealing with higher levels of stress and struggling to cope with daily parenting.
Children’s services “could do much more if adequately resourced”, she told TDs and senators.