Lack of friends during lockdown ‘leaves children at risk of depression for a decade’

Children could be at risk of depression for up to a decade due to the damage caused by lockdown and new rules should be drawn up to allow them to enjoy playdates over the summer, a psychologist has said.

Line Caes, a psychologist at the University of Stirling, said that pre-school children should be able to form “bubbles” with their peers so that their social and emotional development is not hampered further during the pandemic, and that ministers should make it easier for older children to meet up with distancing rules in place.

She was a signatory to an open letter, published at the weekend, which branded a delay in reopening schools a “national disaster” with children facing “educational poverty” due to measures designed to combat a disease they “neither suffer from nor spread”.

Although that letter was targeted at the UK Government, Dr Caes said the same points applied to Scotland, where pupils are facing five months off school and then part-time classes for an indefinite period.

Meanwhile, Scotland’s Children’s Commissioner said he did not believe Nicola Sturgeon should rule out reopening schools full time from August, and that parents were not convinced that the current plan for “blended learning” was “necessary or proportionate”. 

Dr Caes said: “School has an important role to play in a child’s life. Not only for an educational context, but for social and emotional development. They learn a lot from interacting with their peers. That kind of social contact is now missing. 

“Isolation and especially the loneliness related to that is strongly related to depressive symptoms, and that can last up to nine years post-isolation. 

“It’s not necessarily the intensity of how lonely they feel, but the duration. I think that’s what we’re now picking up on. We do understand lockdown was necessary. But it’s been three months now and I think the duration is starting to impact children quite a bit.”

The academic said it was “crucial” for new guidance to be issued for children urgently, to allow them to go on playdates over the summer so that their development is not impeded further before schools return on August 11.

“Children could go on playdates with parental supervision so they adhere to the two metres distance, or could we create bubbles for pre-school children who will not be able to socially distance,” she said. 

“For pre-schoolers, we could create bubbles of up to eight children. It is a difficult balance, but there are ways we can be creative to allow children to have more social interactions.”

Ministers are currently insisting that a two-metre distancing rule must be observed in schools from August, leading to limited capacity in classrooms.

However, Bruce Adamson, the Children and Young People’s Commissioner for Scotland, said that a return to full-time classes from August should not be ruled out.

He told The Daily Telegraph that he shared concerns about the impact the school closures were having on the mental health of young people due to a lack of play or social contact. 

He described some of the plans put forward by councils for the amount of time children would spend at school, in some cases just one full day a week, as “really concerning”.

“Not having a full school programme is having a massive detrimental impact on children and young people,” he said. “That can only be accepted if it can be demonstrated it’s necessary and proportionate, and I think there’s still some questions to be answered there.

“What I’m hearing from all around the country is that the current home learning isn’t working for most children.”

He said that expanding community programmes, potentially using youth workers, should be considered if children were unable to be in school full-time.

Asked about whether children could potentially return full-time to school from August, if cases of the virus continued to fall, he said: “I don’t think we should be ruling anything out.”

He added: “We need [schools policy] to be based on the science and the careful balance between the need to protect public health while also acknowledging the impact that this is having on children’s education.

“There is an obligation on the government to demonstrate why it’s necessary and proportionate to keep it [the social distancing rule] at two metres, and why it’s not appropriate to reduce that.”

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