Children are seeking psychological help in droves, mental health experts say, with the impacts of ongoing lockdowns and COVID-19 only just becoming clear.
Staff at Camperdown Headspace in Sydney’s inner west told Crikey there had been a sharp increase in kids aged 12-15 seeking help for depression, anxiety and disordered eating as their social lives and development were interrupted by school closures and remote learning.
Worryingly, they say, acute patients that have been discharged from hospital are being referred to mental health facilities across the country that don’t have enough highly trained staff to cope.
While the fact that many teenagers are seeking out help is positive, experts warn they may be the “canary in the coalmine”, serving as an indicator for overall poorer mental heath among Australians.
Kids aren’t living in COVID-19 “normal”
COVID-19 has been called a “generation-defining disruption” for children, with concerns that two years of on-and-off restrictions will cause long-term impacts on kids’ developmental potential.
During lockdowns caused by the Delta wave in 2021, mental health hotline Kids Helpline saw a 16.7% increase in calls and Lifeline saw a 33.1% increase compared with the same period in 2019. Lifeline recorded its highest volume of calls in its 58-year history in August 2021, when most of the country was in lockdown.
Jacob* is a 17-year-old high school student in Melbourne’s inner east. He told Crikey that even as schools reopen, uncertainty was a key stressor in his cohort and a COVID-19 “normal” has yet to be seen.
“So many kids have to isolate because they’ve caught COVID-19 or they’re a close contact, and many of us are worried about passing the virus on to our grandparents or immunocompromised family members, so things aren’t back to normal,” he said, adding he wished hybrid or remote learning was still an option for concerned students.
“My sleep schedule has gone completely … I’ve noticed I’ve been a lot more stressed because of trying to keep up with work at school and other commitments while also trying to avoid COVID-19.”
The impact the pandemic has had on parents and their children is huge: 48% of parents and 36% of children surveyed in an August 2020 national poll said the pandemic had negatively impacted their mental health.
Rise in depression, anxiety and disordered eating
Headspace clinical psychology registrar Miranda Cashin told Crikey she has seen an influx of young patients dealing with disordered eating, anxiety and depression.
“There’s been an increase in restrictive eating and over-exercising. There’s been so much lack of structure and changes to kids’ daily routine that they’re looking for ways to be able to have some element of control,” she said.
“It isn’t just the young person that’s experiencing the impact, they’re almost like the canary in the coalmine of what’s happening in the larger family situation.”
She said that while lockdowns weren’t necessarily the cause of stress, they created the “perfect storm” — a catalyst for anxiety and depression, with a flow-on effect into the new year.
Surveys found kids were worried about being isolated from friends, schoolmates and family, while 45% of kids aged 13-17 surveyed in August 2020 said they were concerned about their education being disrupted.
Cashin said being at home also exposed kids to more family dilemmas and stressors they previously might have not been exposed to.
“Developmentally, the social connections for young people are so important. They’ve lost a large element of that,” she said.
Staffing and surge in demand a key concern
Pandemic-related stress caused a surge in people presenting to emergency departments with mental health concerns, with Victoria recording a 16% increase in self-harm injuries between October 2019 and 2020.
Co-director of health and policy at University of Sydney’s Brain and Mind Centre Professor Ian Hickie told Crikey across the country many people who attend the emergency department in a state of mental health crisis are later referred to Headspace — but that the national youth mental health foundation often lacks the staff to cope.
“We often don’t have psychiatrists or skilled clinical psychologists to deal with that level of severity,” he said.
A major concern was a lack of communication between hospitals and mental health teams about the level of care a patient needed and the “missing middle” of mental health support for patients who don’t yet require hospitalisation but need more than a weekly psychologist session.
“This has been a major problem because there are young people who are quite unwell or others with longstanding mental health problems who require acute care,” he said.
Hickie added Headspace was adequately funded but struggled with skilled staff, especially just after Christmas as many private practices deal with a backlog of clients following the break. School returns also often created a surge in patients as students grapple with anxieties about going back to class.
“It’s really tough times.”
*Name changed for privacy.