As children across the UK are settling back into their school routines in what is now largely considered a post-Pandemic world, a crisis is looming: the mental health of our young people. The COVID Social Mobility & Opportunities (COSMO) Study's latest findings bring this crisis into sharp focus, revealing statistics that aren't surprising to anyone who has been paying attention for the last few years, but are nonetheless worrying and, basically, bad news.
COSMO is a major new national longitudinal cohort study which will examine the short, medium and long term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on educational inequality and social mobility.
The study has recruited a representative sample of 13,000 young people who were in Year 11 in the academic year 2020/21 - across England, and asked them about their experiences of the pandemic, as well as their future hopes and plans. It will now follow them through the rest of their education and into the workplace. The study is the largest of its kind into the effects of COVID-19 on the life chances of a generation of young people.https://www.suttontrust.com/cosmo-the-covid-social-mobility-and-opportunities-study/
A staggering 44% of Year 13 students (aged 17-18) are experiencing high levels of psychological distress, which echoes the figures from the previous year. This issue is further exacerbated by the deeply concerning fact that a quarter of these young people have sought mental health support in the past year, with a significant number still on waiting lists or having never received the support they needed. This isn't just a crisis of mental health, but also one of access and equity. Those in the most deprived parts of the country are facing a greater struggle, with 39% still waiting or having not received the support they need, compared to 28% in more affluent areas.
The long tail of the pandemic continues to affect children and young people, with a considerable number still living with its negative impact on their education and mental wellbeing.
The findings, like many others we've seen over the last few years, should be a wake up call to commissioners who are in charge of providing services to children and young people. The Society's Access to Counselling for Every Child campaign offers a tangible solution to many of the issues that are being brought up time and time again. The Campaign isn't just about responding to a crisis, though; it's about reviewing and rethinking our approach to mental health support for children and young people that will make sure young people are getting the support they actually need, at a fundamental level, going forwards. It advocates for a model of care that is child-led, readily available in schools, primary care settings, early support hubs, and includes options for remote support to cater to the needs of all children, including the most vulnerable - those that are unable to attend school for any reason, such as mental ill health, being moved around within the care system, or moving around for other reasons such as parents' work or cultural background.
By properly integrating counselling and psychotherapy into our education and healthcare systems, we can begin to address the critical 'Missing Middle' – children whose needs are too complex for basic interventions but not severe enough (yet) for specialised services like CAMHS. This integration would ensure that no child falls through the cracks, providing support that is not just accessible but also appropriate, and works for them.
The COSMO Study also sheds light on the specific struggles faced by various groups. For example, LGBTQ+ young people are more likely to show signs of poor mental health, with higher rates of self-harm reported among them compared to their non-LGBTQ+ peers. This highlights the need for mental health services that are not only universally accessible, but also sensitive to the unique needs of diverse communities.
Further to this, there is the ongoing impact of COVID. A significant portion of young people reported that the pandemic continues to negatively affect their education and mental wellbeing, with those suffering from long COVID more likely to experience high psychological distress. This adds another layer to the mental health crisis, indicating a need for support mechanisms that address both the physical and psychological repercussions of the pandemic.
The study also indicates a troubling trend of increased bullying and harassment, particularly among marginalised groups. For instance, a high percentage of non-binary students reported harassment about their sex, gender, or gender identity. This underscores an urgent need for anti-bullying initiatives and mental health support that address the specific challenges faced by these groups.
As the COSMO Study highlights, the need for this support is not just urgent; it's critical.