Written evidence from Professor Ellen Townsend (CIL0977)
Dear Joint Committee Members,
RE: The human rights implications of long lockdown and the damaging impact on young people
I am Professor of Psychology at the University of Nottingham where I lead the Self-Harm Research Group. We have a particular focus on young people in our research and it is young people that I write about here in terms of the enormous damaged that is being wreaked on their development, social and emotional learning, wellbeing, mental health and education.
The rights and needs of young people have been ignored in this crisis and this is a national and global disaster in the making. The future of our youngsters has been sacrificed in order to protect adults which goes against the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (article 3) states: “In all actions concerning children, whether undertaken by public or private social welfare institutions, courts of law, administrative authorities or legislative bodies, the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration”. The lockdown measures taken are not proportionate to the risks posed by the virus to young people and below I outline some of the evidence demonstrating the disproportionate impact of lockdowns on young people. Lockdowns deprive young people of the right to education, to normal psychological development, to good mental health and wellbeing.
Lockdowns and school closures disrupt our normal functioning and social interaction – we are fundamentally social beings. For young children, face-to-face play is essential to wellbeing. For some children, playtime at school is the only time they are able to interact with other children. Playing closely with peers protects against mental ill health and without this essential contact young people have felt very lonely  and isolated in lockdown with deleterious and long-term impacts on mental health: the impact of loneliness on mental health can be seen up to nine years later. The social and emotional benefits of playing together cannot be understated.
Preventing children and adolescents from socialising and attending school will disrupt vital developmental processes that impact on brain development and functioning, especially executive function which is vital for self-control and flexible thinking. For many young children a significant proportion of their life has now been spent in some form of isolation or lockdown. For teenagers, the impact of lack of face-to-face social interaction is particularly worrying since this is a sensitive period of development when peer influence and peer acceptance are especially important. Simply put, adolescence is a vital period in life when the brain undergoes structural and functional changes directly influenced by the social environment, which lockdowns have severely disrupted. Many mental illnesses first appear in the teenage years and lockdowns and school closures have removed many sources of support available to those struggling. Indeed, high quality prospective data indicates that lockdown in March increased the number of young people with diagnosable mental health problems – 1 in 6 in 2020 as compared to 1 in 9 in 2017. This means there is an expanding group of vulnerable young people who will require support.
The evidence amassing for the negative impact of lockdowns on mental health problems in children and adolescents is now incontrovertible, and suicide ideation increased significantly over the first six weeks of the first UK lockdown in 2020. There was a worrying signal that suicides in young people increased during this lockdown. Suicide is the leading cause of death in England in 5-19 year olds and many more young people will die from suicide and road traffic accidents than Covid-19 this year. Key risk factors for suicide include lacking a sense of belonging, feeling defeated, trapped and hopeless – lockdowns have undoubtedly increased these feelings in many people – especially young people who are feeling their impact most keenly.
Family relationships have been strained by living in relentlessly close quarters during lockdowns, and sadly calls to domestic violence helplines have soared during this crisis. LGBTQ+ young people are a particular concern here if they have to come out to intolerant families, or are living in fear of being ‘found out’ – and this is a group with a particularly elevated risk of self-harm generally. Data from the Multicentre Study of Self-Harm in England shows that family relationship issues are the most frequently reported life problem for young people who self-harm who are seen in hospital.
The impact of school closures owing to lockdowns has been enormous with many missed months of education leading to a regression in basic skills which is fuelling an ever-increasing attainment gap. Missing out on school is life limiting: a study in the US has estimated that 5.53 million Years of Life Lost will be caused by school closures- life expectancies will be affected.
There are other areas which impact on children which are beyond my professional scope which include missed health checks, screening, operations, treatments and vaccinations. Moreover, poverty, hunger and homelessness are increasing the more lockdown policies are implemented.
The long-term consequences of harms to young people (or indeed people of any age) have not been accounted for in policy making. All other harms are being trumped by Covid-19 which is not how a holistic and compassionate public health system should operate. We must name and account for the harms caused by lockdowns in robust cost-benefit analyses and impact assessments which must be transparent and published.
It is time to prioritise the rights and needs of young people in this crisis and weigh the harms caused by social restrictions and lockdowns. We are letting down a generation of young people who may never for forgive us for the harms we have caused.
Professor Ellen Townsend
Self-Harm Research Group
University of Nottingham.