We are entering a new year with new hope that an array of vaccines will help end the Covid-19 pandemic that has cost tens of thousands of lives in this country, devastated the economy and generated record unemployment.
The vaccination programme could not come soon enough. In our district, unemployment is nudging 5 per cent – a level not seen since the early 1990s recession – and the full impact of the collapse in aviation has not yet been reflected in job figures.
Uttlesford food bank states that “During November we fed 342 people, 194 adults and 148 children this is up from 97 people in November 2019 which is over 350%.” Material deprivation combined with the isolation caused by social distancing is provoking anxiety and depression through families.
While the tide is turning against the virus, the crisis will cast a long shadow with unknown long-term consequences for mental health. Childhood mental wellbeing is crucial to adult wellbeing. Half of mental health problems are established by the age of 14 and 75 per cent by the age of 24. Yet, even before the Covid-19 crisis, 10% of children and young people (aged 5-16 years) had a clinically diagnosable mental problem with 70% of children and adolescents who experience mental health problems failing to receive the appropriate interventions at a sufficiently early age.
Anecdotally, school staff have told me of growing mental health problems among young people. The pandemic and lockdown have left school pupils isolated and fearful and those living with existing mental ill health are traumatised, while previously healthy children are suffering due to the perception that their future is bleak.
Alongside the pandemic, there are existing adverse generational challenges: lack of long-term job security, few opportunities to afford somewhere to live, high costs of tertiary education, a decline in youth service provision, etc. All these were political choices foisted on this generation in the name of “fiscal prudence.”
The policy of austerity, which forced the masses to pay a high price for the failures of a few wealthy bankers, has rolled back the role of the state and as a result there are few safety nets for our local young people and families.
The Saffron Walden-based volunteer counselling service Open Door, which picks up many of the cases that Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) does not have the capacity to address, reports that it saw a total of 57 young people aged 11 to 26 in January to July, of which around a quarter came from the Stansted area and 46 per cent came from the Saffron Walden area. By November, it was seeing 38 clients of which a fifth came from the Stansted area with the numbers rapidly rising. Most referrals come through GP recommendation, while others are via local schools, the NHS Wellbeing Service and self-referral.
Twenty qualified counsellors offer clients up to 12 weeks of free counselling. They are all unpaid. As volunteers, many counsellors do not have the time or money to travel all the way to Stansted for counselling sessions, so the service remains concentrated in Saffron Walden. As such, many young people without transport or who want to see a counsellor confidentially – perhaps due to problems within the home and therefore cannot rely on parents for transport – cannot get counselling.
The recent establishment of the local mental health group in the wake of the pandemic, Let’s Talk Stansted, promises to provide local support for those feeling emotionally overwhelmed and need to reach out for help. It can step in with mental health first aid and signpost those in crisis to relevant agencies. But for those with clinical problems, professional counselling and psychiatry is vital.
The reliance on volunteer services like Uttlesford Foodbank, Open Door and Let’s Talk Stansted are caused by the collapse of welfare and health services as a result of a political choice to pursue austerity measures. Austerity has made our society less resilient in the face of this pandemic, while creating problems of hunger and mental health crises in what is supposedly one of the wealthiest areas of one of the richest countries.
If children in Uttlesford are suffering, you can bet that children in far more disadvantaged neighbourhoods are even worse off.
The Covid-19 crisis should reset our priorities as a society. Austerity is meaningless now that tens of billions are being thrown at the pandemic crisis. In a post-pandemic world, we need to rebuild our society in a way that nurtures young people, rather than makes them pay for the mistakes of older generations. This new society should focus on mutual aid, community resilience, and the ethos of “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” We need to move to an era that is not only more socially just, but also values young people’s place in our shared future.
Locally, we need to build opportunities for healthy activity for young people as well as emotional support. Not everything can or should be provided by volunteers elsewhere.
At the very least, we should stop the finger-wagging moral judgements against adolescents who hang out together in mild contravention of lockdown measures and perhaps understand that, for some, this social contact is keeping them alive.