The number of children and young people seeking help from mental health services has spiked in the wake of recent terrorist attacks in England, according to the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCP).
Hospitals across the Manchester region have seen an estimated 10% increase in children seeking help since a bomb ripped through the Manchester Arena on 22 May, killing 22 people, according to the RCP. Mental health experts in Greater Manchester hospitals received hundreds more patients from June to July compared with previous months.
Dr Louise Theodosiou, a consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist at Royal Manchester children’s hospital and a member of the RCP, described the increase as significant and said the terror attack had a “profound impact on the way the children view their city”.
Just a small fraction of those treated had been at the concert; the majority of patients had felt increased anxiety after watching the events on the news. Anxiety and insomnia were the most common complaints, with children worrying about going out or being on public transport after the attacks.
Theodosiou warned the number affected could be significantly greater, with people also seeking support through school or voluntary services and many others yet to come forward for help.
A similar trend has been noticed in London. Dr Jon Goldin, the vice-chair of the child and adolescent psychiatry faculty at RCP, said there had also been anecdotal evidence of “a rise in children seeking mental health services after recent terror attacks”.
“Maybe the rise hasn’t been as much as Manchester [...] but some of those with a predisposition to anxiety have had it heightened by these recent events,” he said.
The increase could be linked to young people’s consumption of media, with children able to access disturbing footage on their smartphones, according to experts. It could also be a positive sign that efforts to reduce the stigma around mental health were having an impact.
Dr Rachel Langley, a clinical psychologist from Southampton children’s hospital’s sleepdisorder service, said: “Technology has a huge amount to answer for in fuelling a rise in children’s sleep problems. It gives young people access to what is going on in the world and also … the blue light of the screens affects melatonin release.”
She added: “There was a 10-year-old boy I saw recently who has anxiety-related insomnia and he has a specific concern about his dad, who works in London, getting caught up in a terror attack.”
In Manchester more young people are expected to seek help in the coming months and years. Theodosiou said: “It has unmasked vulnerabilities that were not there before. It’s fair to say that of the hundreds of children affected only a small fraction would have witnessed the events.”
She added: “If you think of the bomb as being like an influenza epidemic, those most affected by that will be ones with underlying respiratory problems [...] and in the same way the group most affected by the terror attack in the city have been those who are vulnerable to mental health at the beginning.”
Peter Sweeney, another psychiatrist from Royal Manchester children’s hospital, said services needed to plan ahead to manage post-traumatic stress disorder that could hit families and young people.
“We needed to do lots of work for the survivors initially … they got a high level of support at the start. Our concern now is more about young people who may be experiencing anxiety but are not presenting to us, so those who were at the concert but not seriously injured or those who were not at the concert but affected,” he said.
The message to children should be that these attacks should not alter behaviour and that people should get on with their normal lives, said Goldin. “Children should get that message as well as adults. If you have anxious parents saying ‘don’t go to London etc’ then that doesn’t give the most helpful message.
“One message to get across is that it’s important not to feel that, when a child is anxious about a terror attack, they should be taken straight to children’s mental health services. Usually family and a normal support network can really help them. When things are more enduring, for example several weeks after a traumatic experience a child is still struggling with sleep or their mood etc, then you would want CAMHS [child and adolescent mental health services] to get involved.”