summer programme
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What support do children need most this summer? Proposal for a universal wellbeing programme

Northern Ireland’s Interim Mental Health Champion outlines her vision for a summer programme to enhance children’s emotional regulation and restore their capacity to learn

Siobhan O’Neill

There is a clear link between prolonged stress and adversity in childhood, mental illness, and poor educational performance. While a low level of stress or ‘emotional arousal’ can improve cognitive performance, the requirements for learning problem solving and complex thoughts are only possible when the body and brain are calm. It is not possible to learn when in a state of acute stress or anxiety.

Over time, repeated exposure to stress – particularly in childhood when neuroplasticity is at its peak – changes the body’s stress response pathways. This can lead children to chronic anxiety where the stress response is always switched on, and increases the likelihood of behavioural problems caused by an overactive stress response system, and mental illness. It is impossible to learn when our brain is in this state.

There is an increasing body of evidence showing the emotional and mental health of children and young people has been adversely impacted by the pandemic and its associated restrictions. The findings from the Prince’s Trust survey of 16- to 25-year-olds are particularly concerning, with 47% reporting an increase in anxiety levels, and almost a third (31%) saying they are overwhelmed by daily feelings of panic and anxiety. In Northern Ireland, 54% of young people said they ‘always’ or ‘often’ feel stressed, and more than a quarter (27%) of young people admitted to feeling ‘unable to cope with life’ since the pandemic.

The UK-wide Co-Space study of children’s and parents’ mental health in the pandemic showed that behavioural and attentional difficulties increased through the lockdown from March to June, with primary school-aged children (four- to 10-year-olds) being worse affected than other age groups. Rates of all types of emotional difficulties were higher for disabled children, children with special educational needs (SEN), and for those in low-income households (<£16,000 p.a.). Furthermore, there were no reductions over the course of the study from March to October 2020.

Children rely on their parents and caregivers for emotional state cues which promote emotional regulation. Parental stress is predictive of children’s wellbeing and is related to childhood adversities such as abuse, neglect, violence and substance use. Both the Co-Space and Understanding Society studies showed that parental stress and depression increased during the lockdowns when schools are closed. Lone parents (from single adult households) and low-income families, as well as those who have children with special educational needs and disabilities, have a higher risk of poor mental health, anxiety and depression.

The need for a summer wellbeing programme

Several characteristics of the pandemic and lockdown should be a cause for concern in relation to the mental health of children in Northern Ireland specifically. The Youth Wellbeing Prevalence Survey, undertaken prior to the pandemic, demonstrated that children here have higher levels of mental illness than other parts of the UK and Ireland. The additional mental health impact of the pandemic and restrictions is likely to have a more profound impact on young people here. Furthermore, we have seen a huge increase in COVID-related illness and deaths; the impact of this on parents’ mental health will in turn affect their children’s mental health and wellbeing.

It is in this context that I am calling for the Northern Ireland Executive to support a good-quality summer wellbeing programme delivered at community level for all children in Northern Ireland. Research undertaken prior to the pandemic revealed that poor experiences during school holidays – such as loneliness, lack of physical activity and hunger – exacerbate socioeconomic inequalities and negatively influence mental health. The authors concluded: ‘Taken together, the present findings suggest that school holiday interventions through reducing loneliness, providing nutritious food and opportunities for social interaction may offer significant potential for reducing socioeconomic inequalities in mental health and wellbeing on young people’s return to school.’

The focus should also be about communicating that we value our children and young people, and recognise the sacrifices that have been made to keep the most vulnerable within our society as safe as possible during the pandemic. A well-designed summer wellbeing programme would provide an opportunity to allow our children to reconnect with their peers, and could even facilitate the identification of children and young people with unmet needs.

In keeping with a trauma-informed relational approach, the programme could be centred around existing community provision but incorporate as core components:

  • physical activity, dance or sport;
  • creative projects including options for music, drama, and arts & crafts; plus
  • a healthy balanced meal and snack every day.

These could align with community celebrations which involve parents and others within the community, to promote self-esteem and hope.

What could be the next steps?

In order to progress this summer programme, I have asked that a cross-departmental steering group be established as soon as possible to agree a standard set of guidelines, with options for ways of delivering such activities within different levels of COVID-19 transmission restrictions.

The first task is to establish a comprehensive list of existing and planned schemes led by sporting organisations, workplaces, community groups and local government. This would allow us to identify which areas have limited access to these schemes, and to undertake a needs assessment of programme components. Schemes would be augmented and coordinated to ensure (i) every child has the opportunity to attend a programme, and (ii) that the programmes are of good quality.

Our children have suffered so much though the past year that it is important we view the summer period as a time to rest and reconnect. A universal summer programme would promote emotional regulation. It would also remind our children of their intrinsic value, and be an appropriate way of communicating our gratitude for the sacrifices they have made to keep us safe.

Siobhan O’Neill is Professor of Mental Health Sciences at Ulster University, and Northern Ireland’s Interim Mental Health Champion

The impact of COVID-19 on the mental health of schoolchildren: a summary of early responses around the world