Covid crisis has left children riddled with anxiety and terrified of germs

Children are suffering from a range of “Covid-related” anxieties including germ-phobia and a fear of failure, a study has found.

The most common mental health problem affecting young people is anxiety, according to a paper published by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER).

Researchers conducted interviews with leaders in 50 schools in some of the most deprived parts of the country.

They found that children in both primary and secondary schools reported an increase in hyper-vigilance, germ-phobia and performance anxiety, also known as the fear of failure.

Interviewees identified a range of “Covid-related” reasons for this, such as social isolation during lockdown, pupils experiencing illness and death in the family, and increased parental anxiety.

On June 28, The Telegraph launched a campaign calling on ministers to put children first as the country recovers from its Covid lockdowns, with action to bring an end to the disruption in schools.

Brightest pupils anxious about exam changes

Some secondary pupils said they were worried about their future, including the brightest pupils who were anxious about the implications of changes to exams, researchers found.

The report recommended that the Government’s catch-up plans should focus just as much on children’s emotional wellbeing as it does on their academic abilities.

“The Government needs urgently to review the provision in place to address the surge in Covid-related anxiety and mental health issues among children and young people,” the report said.

Several leaders who were interviewed for the study cited a rise in bad behaviour of pupils and pointed out that this was often a sign of underlying issues, such as pupils experiencing trauma and being unable to communicate their feelings.

They said these issues had been exacerbated by pupils’ experiences during lockdown, while some say social distancing measures have led to aggression as some pupils were fed up with spending so much time with the same pupils.

Campaign for Children: Rise in mental health referrals

Problems affecting pupils included poor concentration, memory and stamina, lack of motivation and withdrawal, poor social skills and fractured friendships, weight gain, and speech and language problems, the report found.

The research, funded by Nuffield Foundation and carried out in May and early June, found that some senior leaders had seen an increase in actual or threatened self-harm, including suicide among children.

One primary school leader said the number of children referred to Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services increased from one child before the pandemic to 11 afterwards.

Schools are putting measures in place to promote pupils’ emotional and mental health, but cannot always get the support they need from specialist services, the report warns.

Negative impact of bubble system

The bubble system – that schools have been forced to abide by since last September to limit transmission – has meant that whole school assemblies have been abandoned as have many extra-curricular activities and clubs.

Headteachers told researchers that this is having a negative effect on pupils’ wellbeing and the community feeling of school.

Caroline Sharp, research director at NFER and co-author of the paper, said: “Despite it being over three months since all children have returned to school full-time, our insights shows that mainstream education has not gone back to normal, due to the continuing impact of the pandemic.

“Most senior leaders we interviewed have expressed their widespread concern for their pupils’ wellbeing and mental health.

“They want to support their pupils, but are struggling to do so without adequate funding and being able to rely on specialist services.

“That is why they are calling on the Government to provide them and critical support services, with the necessary funding, and give them the independence, to enable them to best support the needs of young people.”

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