Mental health of children suffered during pandemic

The scale of the mental health crisis among children during the Covid-19 pandemic has been revealed by new analysis of NHS data.

Prescriptions for mental health conditions among children in the north-east of Scotland were 59% higher in 2021 compared to six years earlier, according to the research. Prescriptions rose by 24% between 2020 and 2021 alone.

Referrals of children to see outpatient mental health specialists increased by 9% between 2015 and 2021, but rose steeply since the pandemic. The most pronounced rise in referrals was among teenage girls which were 35% higher in 2021.

The results are due to be presented at the first ever Health and Care Analytics Conference, which is taking place in Birmingham on 11-12 July.

While the study examined data from mental health services for children aged 2-17 years old in the Grampian region of NHS Scotland, the researchers say the findings reflect similar trends in other parts of the UK.

“There has been a lot of concern about children’s wellbeing post-pandemic and the data does seem to reflect this,” said Dr Jessica Butler, Lead Data Scientist for NHS Grampian and a Senior Research Fellow at the University of Aberdeen, who led the study.

“The rate of referrals of children to specialists was steady pre-pandemic, but we see a rise post-lockdown. It’s clear that it is steepest among the older children, and particularly older girls, where we see the biggest rise in referrals.”

The research also highlighted other differences between the sexes, ages and residential areas. For example, the rate of prescribing and referrals to specialists in the most deprived areas was double that in the least deprived. Prescriptions of mental health drugs to boys were twice as high as those for girls, with the majority of the drugs being given to young boys to treat ADHD. The prescription rate to girls, however, rose steeply after puberty, mainly to treat depression.

The study highlights just how useful information within NHS databases can be to identify potential changes in patient need and help health services allocate resources, but also reveals its limitations.

Dr Butler and her team were able to examine anonymised data contained within NHS Scotland databases in the Grampian region for their research. But they said this only reflects one side of those dealing with children who are struggling with their mental health. Local authorities, social workers, teachers and police will also support children.

Butler and her team have created software that is freely available to allow other NHS services to carry out their own analysis.

The research was conducted as part of a project by the Health Foundation’s Networked Data Lab examining children and young people’s mental health in England, Scotland and Wales. Five teams around the country used anonymised, high security data held in their local NHS databases.

The full research being presented at the conference was published earlier this year in BMC Psychiatry: