Lockdown has left children suffering "unimaginable" mental health damage – but most cannot get help from the NHS, a leading GP has warned.
Dr Shaba Nabi said she felt like there was "nothing she could do" for the increasing number of children coming through her door, as overwhelmed NHS services would not accept her referrals.
The Bristol-based medic told The Telegraph how her previously outgoing daughters, aged 11 and 12, were so altered by the pandemic they were overcome by anxiety which cut short the family’s first post-lockdown cinema trip last weekend.
She said: "I feel such sadness and despair about this. I can’t see when things will change because, in a child’s life, it is such a long time to go without going to school, seeing their friends, going places and mixing with other people, so for them, this [social isolation] is normal now.
"I am one of the privileged few and my kids are still suffering terribly. It is unimaginable to think of the suffering faced by children less fortunate than mine."
Despite her NHS contacts, Dr Nabi was only able to get help through a charity offering online counselling sessions for her elder daughter, whose pre-existing anxiety escalated during lockdown into self-harm, disordered eating and panic attacks about going to school.
She said other families were finding it incredibly difficult to access support – and as a GP she was struggling to get help for her patients.
"It would be easier for me to become a supermodel than to get a child seen by CAMHS [the NHS’s Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service]," she said. "It is so difficult to meet the criteria, a child often needs to be demonstrably suicidal.
"We are now living in a weird world where a primary school age child can repeatedly self-harm and that’s not considered enough for mental health support. And even when children meet the criteria, the waiting lists are very long."
Ministers on Tuesday said that referrals for eating disorders have risen by 22 per cent in the last year, with children as young as five throwing their lunchboxes in the bin.
At a hearing of the Commons health and social care committee, Nadine Dorries, the health minister, was questioned about concerns that too many referrals from GPs for help from CAMHS were being rejected.
It came after a Telegraph investigation revealed forecasts that 1.5 million children will require mental health treatment as a direct result of the pandemic, with concern that demand would outstrip supply three-fold.
Mrs Dorries rejected claims that 140,000 children a year were being denied help, saying the figure included those who only got one appointment.
The minister said too many children were being referred to mental health services when "other tools" to help mental wellbeing might be more appropriate.
She told MPs: "My concern is that we are seeing young people referred to CAMHS when … the tools that they need to help themselves both with their own mental awareness and wellbeing, are more easily obtained elsewhere, so that we can keep the mental health services that we need for those who have serious, lifetime, mental illness," she said.