This week the spotlight has been on children’s mental health but we need this topic to remain at the forefront of everyone’s attention for many months and years to come because the true extent of damage that this pandemic has caused on them, is yet to unfold.

A recent survey has shown that 1 in 6 children aged between 5-16 has a probable mental health problem. This is tragically high and must be addressed as soon as possible, for these are the people our futures depend on and I’m worried we may lose a generation who were undeservedly victimised the most during this pandemic.

Whilst we know that children and young people, with no underlying health problems, are generally spared from serious physical complications of COVID, what we don’t speak about enough is how disproportionately they are affected mentally by it.

From the rising numbers of mental health cases in this cohort to the increasing number of children subjected to neglect and potential developmental problems, I’m seeing it all as a GP.

Earlier this week I spoke to the mother of a previously well and thriving 9 year old who has started self-harming. The fear, the sorrow and the pain in this mother’s voice brought tears to my eyes. Last week I spoke to the parents of a 12 year old with an eating disorder that has developed over the past 6 months. Young children are presenting with daily headaches, tummy pains, sleep disorders, behavioural issues - these are common manifestations of underlying mental health issues. They aren’t always the best communicators of their feelings and so we often see stress presenting in physical ways.

Each time I hear of a case at work, I go home at night and hold on to my own 7 year old. As a parent, I see how much the school closures have impacted our little people not just from an educational perspective but many have regressed emotionally and socially. We go to work to protect and build our livelihoods; children go to school to build theirs. We need to think bigger now to help reverse the negative impact and we need to act fast.

It is good to see that we are nearing a time where the return to schools is on the cards again. We have vaccines being rolled out at speed. This is positive but we mustn’t lose sight that we still have a long way to go until normality can return. The constant change is damaging to our mental wellbeing but it’s even worse on children so the priority must be to limit change, where possible, and stop flip-flopping.

We have to keep doing our bit to keep transmission down so we can start the migration back to school and ensure schools remain open in order for the rest of society to follow. In the meantime we should spend time with our children, talk to them regularly and explore their thoughts and feelings. We need to get them out the house everyday, play with them, have them participate in exercise, feed them healthy food, and prioritise their needs. If you notice any signs or have any concerns, please speak to their teachers or call your GP. We need to equip schools and the community with adequate psychological resources that are ready to screen and attend to the children of our society. This inevitable mental health crisis can be halted, but it will require the efforts of every one of us.