Intended for healthcare professionals


Covid-19: Pandemic has disproportionately harmed children’s mental health, report finds

BMJ 2022; 376 doi: (Published 18 February 2022) Cite this as: BMJ 2022;376:o430

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  1. Gareth Iacobucci
  1. The BMJ

A generation of children and young people are at risk of being left behind because of a combination of soaring waiting times for health services and the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on their mental health, a new analysis has warned.1

Data analysed by QualityWatch, a joint programme between the Nuffield Trust and the Health Foundation, show that the impact of covid-19 has led to an unprecedented increase in demand for mental health services for children and young people in England, most notably for eating disorders.

Jessica Morris, researcher at the Nuffield Trust, said, “In many ways, the wider effects of the pandemic and nationwide lockdowns on children and young people have been greater than the covid-19 infection itself. Despite being much less at risk of hospital admission from the virus, the youngest members of our society have not escaped unscathed and we can see a heavy toll on their mental wellbeing and access to health services.”

Key findings include:

  • ● Between April and September 2021, there was an 81% increase in referrals for children and young people’s mental health services compared with the same period in 2019. The increase for adults (19 years and over) in the same period was 11%

  • ● During the same period, there were over 15 000 urgent or emergency crisis care referrals for children and young people, a 59% increase compared with the same period in 2019

  • ● One in five children and young people waited more than 12 weeks for a follow-up appointment with mental health services between April 2020 and March 2021

  • ● The number of children and young people waiting to start treatment for a suspected eating disorder quadrupled from pre-pandemic levels to 2083 by September 2021

  • ● During the pandemic, the number of children and young people attending emergency departments primarily for an eating disorder doubled from 107 in October 2019 to 214 in October 2021.

The report also highlighted that by the winter of 2021 urgent referrals from a GP were up to 47% higher than pre-covid levels but routine referrals were the same or lower than previously.

Alongside this, the waiting list for planned paediatric hospital care grew 22% in seven months (from 245 654 in April 2021 to 300 465 in November 2021). This compared with a 17% increase for all planned services for all patients, including adults, over the same period.

In November 2021, nearly 1000 children and young people had been waiting over two years for paediatric hospital services. And in November 2021, 15.7% of children under 16 years old with suspected cancer waited longer than two weeks to see a consultant following an urgent GP referral (156 children out of 995 seen in total), up from 6% in November 2019.

Tim Gardner, senior policy fellow at the Health Foundation said, “Children and young people must be at the heart of the national recovery effort, including revisiting plans to expand access to mental health services to account for greater need and targeted action to address the backlogs in children’s health services.”

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