Over the past few months, calls to the Young Minds parents’ helpline have soared as children across the UK grapple with the uncertainty and trauma of living through a global pandemic.
In less than a year, young people have endured extensive school closures, cancelled exams, a scramble for university places following the botched results process, enforced isolation in halls of residence and rapidly reducing job prospects, along with the social isolation, health anxiety and grief people of all ages are facing.
Research has shown lockdowns lead to increased levels of distress, worry and anxiety among young people, and quarantined children are more likely to display symptoms of PTSD. Reports have also suggested cyberbullying may have increased when schools closed down earlier in the year.
It’s no surprise young people and their parents are at breaking point.
“Sometimes you have a parent who is just sobbing on the phone,” said Kate Calcutt, 53, one of 40 volunteers who run the parents’ helpline for the mental health charity Young Minds, one of the Guardian and Observer’s three 2020 appeal charities. “Often people have been trying for two or three days to pluck up the courage to call, and when they get through you can feel their sense of relief.”
A few years ago she struggled to find the advice she needed to support her two teenage sons, one of the reasons why she decided to volunteer with the helpline, but she says the current crisis is completely unprecedented.
“Parents feel isolated because they don’t know how to help their child or they can’t get the help because of the situation we’re in at the moment,” she said. “This time last year, I might have told them to go to their GP who could recommend local counselling and therapy groups, but at the moment none of that is happening.”
In a Young Minds survey in September, almost a quarter of young people (23%) said there was less mental health support in their school than before the pandemic, while 40% said there was no school counsellor available, leaving it up parents to support children suffering with mental health distress.
“We used to get a few minutes between calls. Now it’s instant. The parents are queueing to speak to us. As soon as you hang up, the next one’s there,” said the helpline volunteer Laura Birkinshaw, 52, from Buckinghamshire.
The helpline runs alongside the Young Minds email and webchat services – which also offer support to young people themselves. Together they have helped more than 11,000 parents between April and November, a 43% increase on the same period in 2019.
“We’ve had an incredibly busy year. It’s like being in the eye of the storm,” said Deirdre Kehoe, director of training and services at the charity. “The fear of seeing loved ones become ill, the loss of routine and loneliness, these are the main things that are leading to anxiety, low mood, depression, anger.”
“And the issues that parents are bringing tend to be more complex and more severe. The mention of suicide is definitely more common,” added Birkinshaw.
A report by the National Child Mortality Database said suicide deaths among children may have increased during the first 56 days of lockdown, while restricted access to education and other activities, disruption to support services, tensions at home and isolation continue to be contributing factors to suicides.
The volunteers on the helpline can offer an empathetic ear, signpost the caller to further advice and support, send out information packs and, for the most complex calls, arrange for one of the charity’s qualified mental health professionals to call them back.
“Every time I pick up a call I still get a bit of nervous energy. All the calls are slightly different, and you just never know what you’re going to pick up,” said 57-year-old volunteer Vivien Taylor. “For young children it tends to be anger and tantrums. With teenagers it’s depression and not getting out of bed.”
Feedback from parents shows a simple phone call can make a huge difference at a time when they can’t lean on friends and family for support as usual, equipping them with the knowledge and confidence to give children the help they so desperately need.
“Sometimes it’s just about listening and validating the concerns they have, because they don’t know who else to talk to about this,” said Birkinshaw. “Just beginning that conversation can be hugely empowering to parents if they’ve been concerned for some time.”
Over the next 12 months the charity plans to maintain focus on its digital-first approach and to work with young people to lobby the government for more mental health support, while ensuring its services keep up with the rising demand.
Kehoe said the mental health repercussions of the pandemic would be felt for a long time to come and the charity needed to be prepared: “Some people have experienced huge trauma this year and that can take years to emerge.”