Cathy Creswell’s message is one of urgency: recent research revealed that one in six children in England aged five to 16 now has a probable mental disorder, with Covid and lockdown identified as aggravating factors.
Creswell, professor of developmental clinical psychology at Oxford, argues that it’s not just the pandemic to blame. She says the damage to our young people was done by the government’s response to it.
“The primary focus of the government’s approach to the pandemic has been about restricting the spread of the virus and thinking about the immediate economy,” says Creswell, who is leading the Co-Space study, which is researching how families are coping during the pandemic and what parents can do to help support their children’s mental health. “They didn’t think about the broader impact those measures are having – particularly the longer-term impacts which will be particularly relevant to younger generations.
“The government’s firefighting approach neglected the short, medium and long-term needs of our young people and their families,” she adds. “They failed children, young people and their families in this pandemic.”
Creswell was not surprised by the findings of England’s official survey into child mental health last month. A few days before the survey was released, she joined other eminent child specialists speaking out at the launch of the Guardian’s Covid Generation series, warning that children and young people risk being “catastrophically” hit by the “collateral damage” wrought by the government’s pandemic policies. Our children are, she joined the others in warning, at risk of becoming a “lost generation”.
Children and young people largely avoided the direct health impact of the coronavirus. But there, their luck ended: this generation – Generation Z – had their lives more disrupted than almost any other group: 10 million schoolchildren across the UK had their schools closed from March – the first such shutdown in modern British history – while cancelled exams and the summer fiasco over results caused uproar.
Economically, families with children were hit hardest too: the former homelessness adviser, Dame Louise Casey, has warned that the UK faces a “period of destitution” in which families “can’t put shoes on” their children’s feet.
The futures of young people are beset by predictions of blight too: youth unemployment is on course to more than triple to its highest level since the early 1980s and could hit 17% by the end of this year, according to a Resolution Foundation report.
Creswell says the government should have predicted all this. These aren’t problems that came from nowhere when the pandemic hit, she says. On the contrary, they were of the government’s own making in pre-pandemic times. Dramatically exacerbated by the crisis, she says the seeds were sown with David Cameron and George Osborne’s austerity policies.
“We’ve been seeing an increase in mental health problems – including anxiety and depression – in children and young people over the last decade. Repeated studies show our children are the least happy across Europe,” she says. Findings from the Co-Space study show much, much higher levels of mental health problems in low-income families.
“But it’s not a new thing: this was an issue before the pandemic. It’s just that the crisis has put those inequalities into sharp focus,” she adds.
Co-Space found such extreme elevations in emotional and behavioural difficulties among primary school-age children during lockdown that Creswell sought further funding from the National Institute for Health Research to run a second programme, Co-CAT, for which she needs 560 families with primary aged children experiencing significant anxiety problems, to trial evidence-based support.
In yet another pandemic-related project, she’s also running the Medical Research Council-funded Co-RAY project which involves working with young people to develop evidence based resources to support their mental health. Creswell is also on the advisory group for the government’s Wellbeing for Education Return training scheme, which helps local authorities support children and young people who are struggling on their return to school.
“We will be learning from the pandemic for years,” she says. “My research is now dominated by issues thrown into sharp relief by it.”
Creswell is not despondent, however. Work done to help young people during lockdown has seen vast improvements made to programmes that will continue to be helpful post-pandemic and parents are able to access extensive materials online at their own convenience.
As director of Emerging Minds, she also ran a series of webinars to support parents with common challenges from managing fears and worries to screen time and sleep during the first lockdown. These are still available online.
One of her biggest vexations, however, was the failure of the government to think creatively when the pandemic first hit – or to show any signs of thinking creatively now.
But she has a solution: “One of the main frustrations for me is that we haven’t been able to be creative in how we help more than one group at the same time,” she says. “The same industries that really struggle during lockdowns – hospitality, the arts – are exactly those industries that are really well placed to help young people who are also struggling, through training and development.
“We could have helped those industries, particularly over the summer, to keep young people engaged and active, boosting their employment options instead of devastating them, which is what actually happened,” she adds.
“We can still do that. It’s not too late. Whether our children and young people are permanently scarred by the pandemic depends on what we do now and what we do next,” she says. “That will determine whether we’re dealing with the mental health fallout for many years to come. Or not.”
“The danger of not acting now is leaving a whole generation unheard, forgotten, devalued and put in a position which has the potential to limit their opportunities for the foreseeable future.”
Lives: Wallingford, Oxfordshire
Family: Married with two boys.
Education: Fullbrook School, New Haw, Surrey; Kingston College of Further Education, Surrey; St Anne’s College, University of Oxford (psychology and philosophy); University College London (doctorate, clinical psychology and PhD, psychology).
Career: 2019-present: professor, developmental clinical psychology, University of Oxford; 2014-19: professor, developmental clinical psychology, school of psychology and clinical language sciences, University of Reading; 2013-14: principal research fellow (clinical), school of psychology and clinical language sciences, University of Reading; 2007-13: MRC clinician scientist fellow, school of psychology and clinical language sciences, University of Reading; 2003–07: research fellow (clinical), school of psychology and clinical language sciences, University of Reading; 2006: senior clinical psychologist, University of Reading child anxiety disorders clinic, Berkshire Healthcare NHS foundation trust; 2001-03: junior clinical research fellow and clinical psychologist, University College London and Camden & Islington NHS trust; 1996-97: research psychologist, The Institute of Child Health, University College London; 1995-96 psychology assistant, Radcliffe Infirmary, Oxford.
Interests: Dog walking, watching bad TV with my children, fiction.