'Young people have sacrificed so much in this crisis'

Ella Rhodes hears from Professor Ellen Townsend about an open letter.

Government delays in returning children and adolescents to school have been described as a “national disaster” in an open letter endorsed by more than 130 psychologists. Published in The Sunday Times and signed by eminent psychologists including Professors Uta Frith, Sarah-Jayne Blakemore and Rory O'Connor, the letter outlined the risks to children and young people’s mental health and education due to the Covid-19 lockdown.  

Leader of the Self Harm Research Group, Professor Ellen Townsend (University of Nottingham), was inspired to write the letter after the government delayed its plans to reopen primary schools in England for at least one month before the start of the summer holidays, with secondary schools and universities largely operating remotely for the foreseeable future. In the letter she pointed out that lockdown could increase risk factors for self-harmful thoughts and feelings – such thoughts were found to be on the increase in a 2017 survey. 

‘Since lockdown, we are seeing increases of these issues in young people through surveys at the University of Oxford, the Mental Health Foundation, and rapid reviews (e.g. from the University of Reading) indicate these trends are likely to persist. Suicide is already the leading cause of death in 5-19 year olds in England and the second leading cause of death in young people globally; thankfully, Covid-19 will never claim this many young lives.’

The letter also pointed out a lack of expertise in child mental health and education on SAGE (Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies), which feeds into the government, and a lack of consultation with children and young people on policies which affect them. The attainment gap in education, particularly for vulnerable and marginalised groups, is also likely to increase with more time spent away from school. ‘Children remaining out of school will create a generation with increased educational poverty.’

While some have expressed concern over children catching and spreading the virus, Townsend wrote that the evidence so far suggested that children were at low risk from Covid-19 and were not thought to be important in transmitting it. ‘As Alistair Haimes (writing in The Critic) recently put it: “With no serious pre-existing conditions, the young-ish and healthy are far more likely to be hit by lightning than to die of COVID-19.”’ 

In an earlier blog for the University of Nottingham Townsend urged the government to consider the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people who had been under lockdown since late March. ‘The one policy decision that could have the most significant impact for young people to protect their mental health both now and in the future, would be to release them from the lockdown as soon as possible. If I had a magic policy wand, that is what I would use it for.'

Townsend told me she felt the health and wellbeing of children and young people had been broadly neglected in government decision-making. After Gavin Williamson, Secretary of State for Education, announced there would be no school for many children until September, or later, she felt a need to advocate for young people. ‘I drafted a letter and reached out to colleagues – the response was (and continues to be) overwhelming. Signees are still coming forward and the support from parents, teachers and others has been incredible. We have really struck a chord. Young people have sacrificed so much in this crisis. We should not ask them to do this anymore. They must be allowed to get back to playing, socialising and learning as normally as possible as soon as possible.’

Townsend continues to add signees to the letter every day and has invited colleagues to email her on [email protected] if they would like their name to be added. 

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber