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Children still suffering Covid-related anxieties including excessive handwashing

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The Covid pandemic is continuing take a toll on the mental health of children and young people, the Oireachtas Education Committee heard today.

Worries about parents being safe, separation anxiety and excessive handwashing are among the concerns parents are reporting to an ISPCC support service.

There have been increasing concerns about children’s mental health, both in Ireland and internationally, for years, much of it stemming from the proliferation of social media. However Covid is seen as an added stressor.

Fiona Jennings, ISPCC policy and public affairs manager, told the Oireachtas committee about the issues coming up on their Digital Mental Health and Wellbeing programmes for five to 18-year-olds and for parents/carers to manage their own anxiety while supporting their anxious child or teenager.

She said parents were reporting children’s anxieties about parents being safe constantly, social anxiety and health anxiety arising from the Covid message of ‘keep safe and don’t make others sick’.

She said there were also issues around obsessive compulsive behaviour, such as excessive handwashing and use of sanitisers.

“Levels of anxiety are definitely exacerbated,” said Ms Jennings, adding that “some of it is the Covid impact”. She also said Covid had given children “a choice” about school and “ whether to go in or not”.

The committee was continuing its discussions on mental health supports in schools and tertiary education

May Logue, vice-chair of the Irish Council of Psychotherapy, told the committee that council members who work in and with schools have relayed shared experiences, since the pandemic, where there was a push to “return to normal”.

"This normal involves the pressure to return to teaching in the vital but narrow curriculum rather than providing safe spaces where children and young people can learn.”

She said at one day last week, in a 500-pupil school in the west in the Department of Education’s Deis scheme for disadvantaged communities, there were over 90 unexplained absences.

“I think you will all agree that this is telling us something in terms of the mental health of our young people. Our teachers are not supported and trained to handle the amount of trauma that children are experiencing, trauma that has been exacerbated by the pandemic.”

Mark Smyth, past president of the Psychological Society of Ireland (PSI), told the committee that Ireland did not have enough places on professional training programmes to meet current or future demands for psychologists.

He said even if significant additional government funding was to be provided to increase the numbers of psychologists in primary care psychology and National Educational Psychological Service (NEPS) posts, “the reality is that we are not training enough psychologists to fill those posts”.

The HSE estimated a need for an additional 322 psychologists in mental health services alone.

Mr Smyth said there were “significant shortfalls in the provision of psychological services due to inadequate staffing levels resulting in long waiting lists and significant difficulties in both the recruitment and retention of trained staff”.

He called on the Government to fund an additional 50 trainee psychologist posts across all the professional doctoral programmes each year for a five-year period which, he said would cost €12.25m.

He welcomed the Budget announcement that NEPS would receive funding for an additional 54 psychologists, but said there would continue to be shortages of NEPS psychologists in schools due to there being no provision for cover for maternity leave.

“In a predominantly female dominated profession, the impact of a lack of cover for maternity leave places additional unnecessary strains on psychological services to schools.”

He also said it was “inexplicable” that trainee educational psychologists are expected to train for free for three years and pay thousands in fees each year. “This is a direct impediment to attracting candidates to the profession as it is in direct contrast to other psychology professional training courses.”


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