Child mental health crisis exacerbated by pandemic ‘can be tackled with play’

Experts are advocating the benefits of childhood play amid a child and adolescent mental health crisis exacerbated by the pandemic.

Developmental psychologists at the University of Sussex have highlighted the societal benefits of children having the opportunity to play – especially after two years of restrictions due to Covid-19 – ahead of Wednesday’s national Playday.

Professor Robin Banerjee, director of the university’s School of Psychology, was part of a group of UK mental health experts that made headlines in May 2020 when he asked then-education secretary Gavin Williamson to prioritize gaming after first national blockade.

He said: “As we continue to face the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic, much has been said about the need to help children regain ‘lost learning’ regarding academic skills. But we also need to support children’s development in a much broader sense.

“Evidence shows that children’s mental health has been affected by the global pandemic and we must provide ample opportunities for children to build and maintain positive social relationships.

“Playing is fundamental for the socio-emotional and socio-cognitive development of children and young people. It serves as a key context within which children establish and develop their peer relationships, which in turn are so important to the development of their social and emotional skills, mental health and well-being.”

Playday encourages families, communities and organizations of all sizes to consider how they can create better opportunities for children to play to support their physical and mental health, improve social skills and help them connect with their communities.

An Ofsted research report published last week concluded that the pandemic has placed “specific pressures on the child welfare sector and exacerbated existing challenges”.

(Danny Lawson/PA)

During lockdown restrictions, some children were less visible to staff, which increased the risk that harm would not be identified, the report said.

He added that while children have returned to school and staff can see them again, some services are not working again or are at lower capacity than pre-pandemic levels.

The report added: “The mental health of some children and young people has deteriorated during the pandemic and we are seeing increasingly complex mental health needs among children in need of support.

“Health services are overwhelmed and many local authorities and providers are organizing their own mental health and wellness services as a result.

“This is shifting cost pressures to local authorities, providers and schools and such provision may lack the clinical governance of NHS services.

“Despite efforts to help children and young people access support, there is concern in the industry that the deterioration of children’s mental health is a lasting legacy of the pandemic and that services for children will remain strained for years, with an increase in demand for mental health services for adults in the future”.

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