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3 February 2021

School closures further isolate a lonely generation – and the effect on children could be disastrous

Promised online resources to “boost mental health support” are no substitute for what schools offer children: friends, exercise, purpose and safeguarding. 

By Louise Perry

We don’t actually know yet if suicide rates have increased as a consequence of lockdown. Sometimes major crises can have the opposite effect, with societies “pulling together” in the face of adversity and, in the process, drawing unhappy and marginalised people into the fold. But it is quite possible that this will not be true of the Covid pandemic, since it is difficult to “pull together” in conditions of enforced solitude.

The New York Times recently published a long and distressing article on an apparent rise in child suicide in American school districts that have pursued the most aggressive lockdown policies. Suicide is never a consequence of one factor alone, and all of the children mentioned in the piece were suffering from mental health problems before the pandemic began. But it is impossible to ignore the role of school closures in the accounts given by families of the events leading up to their loved ones’ crises. In the piece, the grandfather of one 12-year-old boy describes how his grandson was saved from a suicide attempt. When asked what drove him to that point, the only clue the boy gave was to say again and again: “I miss my friends.”

And yet the school authorities interviewed were certain that, rather than re-opening schools, providing some kind of talking therapy – socially distanced, of course – must be the solution. In the UK, the Department for Education has been thinking along the same lines, with the promise of “new online resources” to “boost mental health support for staff and pupils” while schools remain shut until at least March.

Schools offer much more than teaching, particularly for young people with difficult home lives. They provide friends, exercise, structure, purpose, a hot lunch and responsible adults on hand to offer support and, when necessary, safeguarding. Not only have children been denied access to this for almost a year, but they have also, like many of us, been stuck indoors, with social media providing their main source of company, and precious little else in the way of face-to-face interaction with anyone outside of their own homes.

Households are smaller than they once were because family size has been steadily shrinking for half a century. Long before the pandemic, young people were spending less time playing outside than their parents did as children, were unlikely to know their neighbours and were living further away from members of their extended family than they would have done in the past. We already had a generation of lonely children, even before school closures made the problem acutely worse.  

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[see also: How vulnerable children are being forgotten during the Covid-19 lockdown]

You could use biomedical language and talk of a rise in “depression”, “anxiety” or “behavioural disorders” among the children of lockdown. Or, given that an emotional response is both entirely rational and entirely predictable, you could use more prosaic language and describe these young people as “sad”. Over the past century, psychiatric “concept creep” has led to the medicalisation of forms of emotional distress once considered an expected part of the human condition. This can sometimes result in the pathologisation of normal grief, worry and sadness. One critic of this phenomenon, the psychiatrist Lewis Kirshner, has estimated that approximately half of Americans will now meet the criteria for a major psychiatric disorder at some point in their lives.

In The Culture of Narcissism (1979), the historian Christopher Lasch wrote presciently about a “therapeutic culture” that came about, in part, to fill the void left by the demise of civil society in the West. Can it be a coincidence, Lasch asks, that exactly when the role of the Church, the family and the neighbourhood diminished, the therapeutic profession grew in size and influence?

Which is not to say talking therapies don’t help; they do, in many cases, although not all – but an hour a week with a stranger is no long-term remedy for loneliness, since it can never replace the real, solid and lasting effect of feeling oneself to be part of a community. 

Nor can therapy or its self-help proxies materially alter a situation that is causing distress; rather, it may help the person in distress to regard their situation differently and, perhaps, to gradually change it themselves. But children don’t have much control over their own lives in general, and they certainly don’t have control over whether they are released from their current house arrest.

When authorities offer “new online resources” to “boost mental health support”, they are asking young people, cut off from the outside world, to reconceptualise a predicament that they cannot change.

This is why it matters whether we describe the children of lockdown as “depressed” rather than “sad”. A biomedical problem demands biomedical solutions, whether in the form of talking therapies or – more troublingly – psychiatric drugs. But a social problem demands social solutions, which brings us out of the realm of psychiatry and into the realm of politics. Deciding whether or not to reopen schools, and so provide material relief for unhappy and lonely children, falls to politicians, not therapists.

The question of whether school closures cause more harm than good is an empirical one, and the role of schools in community transmission of the virus must be taken seriously – this is a matter of greater or lesser evils. But we now know that teachers are not at significantly higher risk of death from coronavirus than the working-age population, and that school-age children are much less likely than adults to transmit the disease.

In coming down firmly on the side of closure, we have conducted a huge, unplanned experiment in what happens when you isolate a generation of children, and the early results do not look good. 

[see also: The dunce of Westminster]

This article appears in the 03 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Europe’s tragedy