Two clinicians warned that it is likely children who could have been suffering poor mental health for months will only be noticed once teachers get to see them in person in the classroom.
There has also been a concerning rise in eating disorders, self-harm and psychosis among young people, from the beginning of the pandemic.
Dr Karen Street, officer for mental health at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, told the Observer: “What we found in the first lockdown is that things seem to go quite quiet on all fronts right at the beginning, but later there was a really steady and very big surge of young people presenting with eating disorders.
“That surge peaked in September and October when they were back in school and the teachers had that opportunity to see them for the first time in months.”
Dr Street added: “We’re all just feeling we’re going to see lots of slightly lost, sad, confused, anxious, disorientated kids coming back into school.”
Likewise, Dr Bernadka Dubicka, chair of the child and adolescent faculty at the Royal College of Psychiatrists, described the impact of the pandemic as “a crisis on top of a crisis”.
She said: “We had a pre-existing crisis in child and adolescent mental health before the pandemic.
“The indications are things just got much more difficult for many children and families, and also for the staff trying to provide services.
“We already have evidence of an increase in mental health problems among families living in poverty. We know the pandemic has hit many of those families the hardest. It’s extremely worrying.”
She added: “I’ve seen a lot of children that hit crisis on going back to school in September last year, and are terrified about going back again.”
Referral to social services have also fallen by a third, as children have been working from home.
The fears of Dr Dubicka and Dr Street were echoed by Conservative MP Dr Caroline Johnson, in the House of Commons on Friday.
Dr Johnson, who also works as a consultant paediatrician, told MPs she had witnessed more children with psychiatric problems admitted to acute medical wards during the pandemic.
She said: “We know that child protection referrals are down a third. They are often made by schools, and it is likely that we will see a spike in these when schools return.”
Anna Edmundson, head of policy at the NSPCC, said: “It is vital the Government puts emotional and mental health at the heart of its educational catch-up, along with a concrete plan to ensure every child has access to early support in schools and their local community to help prevent problems escalating,”
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “We know this year has been exceptionally difficult, especially for our children and young people, and that for many it is having a real impact on their mental health.
“Early intervention and treatment is vital, and we are providing an extra £2.3 billion to help an additional 345,000 children and young people access NHS-funded services or school and college-based support.
“We are also training a new dedicated mental health workforce to provide targeted support, and investing £8 million to help upskill education staff so they can better respond to children’s emotional and mental health needs as a result of the pandemic.”
The original version of this article was first published on inews.
Click here for information on Counselling for Children and Young People.