Top NHS doctor issues advice for children going back to school

NHS England’s top doctor for children and young people’s mental health has urged parents to be alert to signs that children could be experiencing anxiety, distress or low mood as some pupils return to school on Monday (1 June).

Lockdown will have increased pressure on many mums, dads and their children, with young people unable to see friends, Professor Prathiba Chitsabesan said.

However, the return to school may cause anxiety for some pupils heading back to the classroom after months away – and those who would like to return but remain stuck at home feeling left out or isolated.

Professor Chitsabesan stressed that NHS mental health services remain available for children and young people. We are working in partnership with schools and other services to support children and their families.

Parents can also take simple steps to help sons or daughters who might be struggling to deal with the loneliness and uncertainty of lockdown or fears about returning to school.

Professor Prathiba Chitsabesan, NHS England Associate National Clinical Director for Children and Young People’s Mental Health, said: “Children and young people may be experiencing a variety of feelings in response to the coronavirus pandemic, including anxiety, distress and low mood, and it is important to understand that these are normal responses to an abnormal situation.”

“The NHS offers a large amount of mental health support for children and young people, and if a child needs urgent mental health support or advice, check for services in your area, including 24/7 crisis support.”

NHS England has issued advice on what parents should look out for and steps that they can take to look after their child’s mental health, based on advice from clinicians and first-hand experience from patients and parents.

Signs that parents should look out for include:

  • You might find they are more upset or find it hard to manage their emotions
  • They may appear anxious or distressed
  • Increasing trouble with sleeping and eating
  • Appearing low in mood, withdrawn or tearful
  • Reporting worried or negative thoughts about themselves or their future
  • For younger children, there may be more bed wetting.

If a parent is worried about their child’s mental health, they can help by:

  • Making time to talk to your child
  • Allow your child to talk about their feelings
  • Try to understand their problems and provide reassurance that you have heard them and are there to help
  • Help your child do positive activities
  • Try to keep a routine over the next few weeks
  • Look after your own mental health.

Parents should contact NHS 111 online or a GP immediately if they notice any physical injuries on a child, such as deep cuts or burns.

Advice is also available from Rise Above, a website created with young people, and from MindEd – a free educational resource for parents and professionals working with children.

Claire Murdoch, NHS England National Mental Health Director said: “We know that children and young people’s lives have been disrupted during these uncertain times, and some may be suffering from anxiety as schools reopen.

“The NHS is open for business as usual and has adapted to the coronavirus crisis through offering flexible options including phone and video consultations and online support.”

Tom Madders, Campaigns Director at YoungMinds said:”School can provide routine, structure and a chance for children to connect and learn, which can all be positive for mental health – but for some children, returning will be a confusing and overwhelming experience, especially if the environment feels different to how it was before. Some children who aren’t yet returning to school may also be struggling with social isolation or uncertainty about what the future holds.

“If you’re worried about how your child is coping, trust your instinct and reach out for help. The YoungMinds Parents Helpline can provide advice and support to any parent or carer who’s concerned about their child’s mental health, and you can also talk to your GP, your child’s school or NHS mental health services.”

Minister for Mental Health, Nadine Dorries said: “As many children start to return to school, it’s vital we continue to give them the support they need to maintain their mental health and wellbeing and deal with any feelings of uncertainty or worry they may be experiencing.

“The NHS remains there for those who need it and our mental health services are adapting to best support families and children as we all get used to these changes in routine. We also recently provided over £9 million to leading mental health charities to help them expand and reach those most in need.

“I urge any families and children in need of guidance and advice or crisis support to contact their GP or visit the NHS website.”

Children and young people with disabilities including those with autism spectrum disorder, learning disabilities and ADHD may find the impact of coronavirus particularly difficult to manage. It is important to explain change and manage any anxiety and distress they may be experiencing.

Seek immediate advice if they are already in contact with specialist health and social care services or contact your GP. The National Autistic Society have helpful advice on their website on how to deal with this uncertain time with the coronavirus.

Teachers who have a concern over a pupil should visit their local NHS Children and Young People’s Mental Health Services website which has phone numbers so you can get in touch directly for detailed advice.