PARENTS have been urged to be on the lookout for signs their child is struggling amid a rise in children needing help for their mental health.
New figures have revealed that there has been a 39 per cent rise in referrals for NHS mental health treatment for under 18s.
The rise in referrals for children and young people reflects a “whole range” of illnesses experts warnedCredit: Getty
Between 2021 and 2022, more than a million children sought help for issues such as eating disorders, anxiety and depression, the data shows.
This compares with the previous year 2020/21 – pandemic year – when the figure was 839,570.
In 2019/20 there were 850,741 referrals.
The rise in referrals for children and young people reflects a “whole range” of illnesses, Dr Elaine Lockhart, chairwoman of the child and adolescent psychiatry faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists said.
She said “specialist services are needing to respond to the most urgent and the most unwell”, including youngsters who have psychosis, suicidal thoughts and severe anxiety disorder.
The data, analysed by the PA news agency, revealed that the number of children being admitted to hospital with an eating disorder is also rising.
In March 2022, it was also revealed that record numbers of young people were starting treatment for eating disorders.
Almost 10,000 children and young people started treatment between April and December – an increase of a quarter compared to the same period last year and up by almost two thirds since before the pandemic.
Dr Lockhart said targets for seeing children urgently with eating disorders were sliding “completely” and more staff were needed.
“I think what’s frustrating for us is if we could see them more quickly and intervene, then the difficulties might not become as severe as they do because they’ve had to wait,” she added.
The figures show that in those under 18, there has been a 82 per cent rise in hospital admissions in the last two years – specifically for eating disorders.
From April to October 2022 there were 3,456 admissions, up 38 per cent from 2,508 for the same period in 2019, before the pandemic.
There were 3,011 admissions from April to October 2020, and 4,600 for the same period in 2021 when the full effects of the pandemic lockdowns were felt.
Dr Lockhart added that the stress of the pandemic, and many children having seen their parents stressed, had made the situation worse.
Dr Agnes Ayton, chairwmoman of the eating disorders faculty at the college, said patients seen “on the front line… are usually quite severely ill” and services are struggling to meet demand.
Dr Ayton said the figures on hospital admissions for children and young people were “utterly heart-breaking”, adding: “Without early support eating disorders become much worse and harder to treat, with possible life-altering consequences.”
The signs and symptoms of eating problems can vary from person to person.
BEAT, the leading UK’s eating disorder charity, has designated pages to help young people who may be struggling with an eating problem
However, a combination of the below symptoms could be a sign that a child might need additional support:
- Preoccupation with checking calorie or other ingredient content in food
- Eating a restricted amount or range of foods
- Binge eating
- More controlling behaviours such as rules about eating, insisting on making their own meals or only using certain utensils and cutlery
- Negative self-image about their weight and/or appearance
- Secretiveness or avoiding eating with others
- Feeling guilty after eating
- Repeatedly weighing themselves
- Vomiting after eating, or going to the toilet immediately after eating
- Compulsive or excessive exercising
- Abnormally low or high weight or changes in weight or body shape
- Long-term weight stagnation or failure to grow
- Complaining of poor concentration, dizziness, tiredness or feeling cold
- Getting stressed at mealtimes
- Low mood, anxiety or irritability
- Social withdrawal
4 steps to take
CHRIS CALLAND and Nicky Hutchinson, authors of Tackling Anxiety In Schools, share ways to help kids manage anxiety.
EMOTIONS: Discuss these with your children. Do not just talk about happy, sad or angry. Include, for example, anxious, fearful and frightened. They need these words to recognise how they are feeling and know they can, and should, feel those emotions.
There is pressure for them to be happy all the time. Parents want them to be and social media makes them think they should be.
Normalise the fact that we aren’t always happy. Explain that emotions all serve a purpose and they don’t need to be covered up. It is good for men to talk to boys about emotions, too.
PRAISE: When your children talk about their feelings, give them positive feedback. Tell them: “I’m so glad you’re telling me about it.” Let them know it’s a good thing to do.
LISTEN: As adults, we often minimise concerns by saying: “Don’t worry” or we try to rescue them from anxiety by swooping in to sort it out.
But equipping them to address it, by saying: “That must be tricky – what we can do?” is a better approach. Keep it calm. If they see you panic, they will feel worse.
SLEEP: This has a massive impact on children’s ability to cope with the ups and downs of life. Take screens out of the bedroom and offer breathing and mindfulness strategies, or yoga, to help them sleep.
Children aged seven to 12 should be getting ten or 11 hours and 12 to 18-year-olds should have eight to nine hours.
If you’re worried your child may be suffering with other mental health issues, Dr Nihara Krause, a consultant clinical psychologist and founder of youth mental health charity stem4 previously said the signs might not always be obvious.
No child is the same, but there are some common symptoms of depression to be aware of.
They are centred around a general feeling of sadness and hopelessness.
Dr Krause says to look out for persistent tearfullness or sadness, along with hopelessness or changes in sleep routine.
She added that you might also notice eating changes, fatigue, your child complaining of pain and them also withdrawing from activities they once enjoyed.
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “Improving eating disorders services is a key priority and we’re investing £53 million per year in children and young people’s community eating disorder services to increase capacity in 70 community teams across the country.
“We are already investing £2.3 billion a year into mental health services, meaning an additional 345,000 children and young people will be able to access support by 2024 – and we’re aiming to grow the mental health workforce by 27,000 more staff by this time too.”
If you are worried about any of your child’s symptoms, you should see your GP who may be able to refer you to specialist mental health services in your community.
In the event of an emergency, always call 999 or visit your nearest A&E department.