Throughout the past year almost everyone has struggled. Many have found the numerous national lockdowns and Tier restrictions difficult and draining. Whilst the COVID 19 pandemic has been devastating for many and doing what we can to stop this virus is an unquestionable must, the pandemic has had an underappreciated side effect that has caused difficulty for many: Mental Health Issues, particularly amongst those under 18. To discuss this, I (virtually) sat down with Ian Dawson, a counsellor at my school, Hampton.

In 2018, NHS digital released data in which it stated that one in eight people aged between 5 and 19 have a diagnosable mental health condition, a significant rise since the last release of any data like this, in 2004. I asked Mr Dawson if he had noticed any kind of shift in what he saw day to day as a counsellor in his ten years of being a counsellor. He explained that, in his experience, there has been an increase in pressure and expectations on young people and he faces lots of people with issues over striving for perfection and fear of failure. He particularly stressed the increasing prevalence of anxiety. However, it was not all bad news; he also stated that there has definitely been an improvement over the stigma around seeking help and attending counselling. Although he admitted the hardest part was often getting people through the door as it means, to a lot of people, admitting weakness.

The same data also stated that only a quarter of people aged between 5 and 19 with a mental health condition actually had contact with a mental health specialised. When asked on why he thought this was the case, Mr Dawson explained he believed that the issue was a lack of support for those suffering with a mental health condition and that mental health is not being recognised enough by the leadership and, whilst there has been improvement, schools need to prioritise wellbeing. He commended a campaign launched by The Evening Standard, by the name Young London SOS, which is encouraging people to donate to the charity Place2Be which is seeking to provide mental health based services to UK schools. This early intervention is crucial as according to the World Health Organisation, half of all mental health conditions start by the age of 14. Mr Dawson believes that mental health awareness is at too late a stage during development and, while some primary schools are starting to focus more on wellbeing, more needs to be done.

Mental health has been a growing issue for years now, but it has been particularly exacerbated by the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns. According to a report carried out by the BBC in August, symptoms of depression nearly doubled after the first national lockdown. Mr Dawson pointed out that one of the issues is that “we are all in the same boat” during this crisis in terms of suffering and mental health. Instead, he preferred, although he was quick to point out he did not come up with it, the phrase “we are not all in the same boat, we are all in the same storm” and that everyone will be having different struggles, with different levels of severity. He explained that this lockdown is particularly difficult for adolescents as they are at a point in their development where the brain rewards novelty and excitement and they are priorities in the adolescent brain. So, living out what he described as a “Groundhog Day” during lockdown is much harder for adolescents compared to adults, whose brains are more comfortable with such a repetitive routine, although that is not to say coping with lockdown has not been a challenge for adults.

So how can we break the monotony and stay healthy during such a difficult time? Mr Dawson recommended that we try to be kind and understanding to ourselves and acknowledge when it is hard instead of trying to maintain high standards because we ‘should’ be able to do something. To continue the novelty that the adolescent brain so desperately craves, he recommended doing small things that are new or different, for example expanding your diet and cooking new foods. He also recommended playing video games online with friends as a way of socialising and still being able to relax and hang out with friend.

Due to the increase of mental health issues and lack of socialising due to restrictions, Mr Dawson found that he was very busy during the Autumn term, when schools were open, as a many more people came to talk due to the restrictions limiting who they could talk to. He believed that, in a way, this could be beneficial as it has encouraged people to try counselling and get over the initial fear of going, meaning people may be more comfortable to go to counselling in the future, even just to talk. He stressed that they were able to talk about anything, no matter how insignificant it may seem.