Suicide rates have fallen in Essex – but more children and teens in the county needed mental health support and medication during the pandemic.
Mental health charities said young people have been hit hard by the events of the past 18 months with loneliness, isolation and disruption to their education listed as contributing factors.
Since April 2015, the number of under 18s receiving prescriptions in Essex has seen a steady increase.
It went up by a third, from 939 to 1,274 in February 2020.
Better news is that overall suicide numbers have fallen in Essex – despite fears the pandemic and lockdown restrictions would lead to a spike in people choosing to take their own lives.
In 2020, 167 people took their own lives in the area, down from 220 the previous year and 195 in 2018. It is also the lowest number since 2013 when there were 145 suicides.
The restrictions prompted gloomy predictions that there would be a huge increase in people choosing to take their own lives.
But in fact, the latest national figures show 5,224 people took their own lives in 2020, an eight per cent fall from 5,691 in 2019.
That meant the suicide rate fell significantly from 11.0 deaths per 100,000 people in 2019 to 10.0 last year.
However, while one explanation for the declining figures is a decrease in male suicides at the start of the pandemic, it is thought the lower figures are also influenced by delays in death registrations.
In Essex, there was an average delay of 141 days in registering deaths in 2020, up from 138 days in 2019, a difference of just three days.
But the impact on young people’s mental health has been at the front of much of health teams concerns and at the end of last year it was announced that mental health teams are set to be brought into 75 per cent of Essex schools by 2025.
The introduction of specialist teams comes following a rise in the number of young people being looked after for mental health issues.
Sarah Garner – associate director of Southend, Essex and Thurrock Children and Young People’s Emotional Wellbeing & Mental Health Collaborative – a group of seven CCGs and three local authorities across Southend, Essex and Thurrock facilitating children’s mental health interventions said that eating disorders and anxiety are the most common areas schools are seeing.
Overall, there has been a marked increase in people commencing treatment. In 2015/2016 there were 2,490 young people starting treatment. In 2019 there was 15,000.
This trend has been reflected in the number of young people being prescribed medication.
In March 2020, when the first UK lockdown began, the number of young patients prescribed antidepressants in the county reached a peak, with 1,379.
Two further spikes of 1,314 and 1,310 young patients were also seen around the time of the second and third lockdowns, in December 2020 and February 2021, respectively.
The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidance recommends antidepressants be given to young people with moderate or severe depression alongside talking therapies, following assessment by a mental health specialist.
There were 2,860 referrals to mental health services in Essex starting in March this year.
That was an increase compared to the 1,955 recorded in March 2020, and it was also up from 2,225 in February 2020, just before the start of the pandemic.
In England overall, the number of young patients prescribed antidepressants has gone up from 23,858 in April 2019 to 24,272 in April 2020, during the first lockdown.
The number peaked in March 2020, when 26,965 young people were prescribed antidepressants.
There was another peak in December 2020, with 26,031 people.
A Mental Health Foundation spokesperson said: “The Mental Health Foundation’s study of mental health in the pandemic makes it clear that older teenagers and younger adults are among the groups who have suffered most.
“Their education, social lives and careers were massively disrupted by lockdown restrictions – and many are still finding their studies and work damaged by the pandemic, as well as their hopes for the future.
“Friendships are especially important to young people and so not being allowed to socialise has been particularly hard on them, in a way that has affected their mental health.
“Over the year since lockdown started, the study found that they were much more likely than older adults to feel lonely, anxious, hopeless and suicidal.
“What will help them recover includes confidence that they will be able to get high-quality education, training or employment, along with basic needs such as enough food, decent housing and money for essentials.”