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Recent lockdowns in Melbourne and Sydney have driven a surge in calls by distressed children to the Kids Helpline, taking demand to the highest level recorded in the pandemic.
Calls to the helpline had already risen 30 per cent in Victoria in the first six months of 2021 compared with the first six months of 2020, and by 14 per cent in NSW, before the latest lockdowns. The surge comes as education and child mental health experts warn repeated periods of remote learning are doing cumulative harm to children.
Melbourne’s fifth lockdown, which started in mid-July and ran for two weeks, coincided with the highest number of calls to the 24-hour phone hotline, hitting an average of more than 500 a day.
Sydney’s current lockdown, which started in late June, has triggered a jump of more than 50 per cent in calls to the Kids Helpline in NSW, peaking at a pandemic high of 4143 calls in the week beginning on July 19. Victorian children made 3632 calls in the same seven-day period.
The data for July was obtained by Victorian Nationals MP Emma Kealy, the state opposition’s spokeswoman for mental health.
“When you have a school closure, it’s not just about kids learning from home,” Ms Kealy said.
“Kids are cut off from the routines that they normally have at school, they are cut off from their friends … they are also cut off from their community sport, their music lessons, their art lessons.”
With regional Victorian schools reopening in the past week, Ms Kealy said the government should consider doing the same in parts of metropolitan Melbourne where there are no positive cases.
“All of the things they do to support their coping mechanisms with difficult things that are going on with life are taken away from them, and then we put this extreme pressure on them and it’s breaking a generation of children,” she said.
Schoolchildren in Melbourne have spent 27 days away from classrooms during lockdowns this year, on top of up to 108 days last year. Sydney students have missed 25 days of face-to-face learning this year.
Jordana Hunter, education program director of the Grattan Institute, said research by the Murdoch Children’s Institute had found school closures can harm children.
“I worry about the long-term impacts of these closures on kids, particularly those who are already struggling with their learning or finding their place in school,” she said.
“As intermittent closures persist, there’s a real risk that some children completely disengage with school. This could have really significant ramifications for their own lives, as well as for our whole community.”
The Kids Helpline service is designed for children and youths aged five to 25.
Tracy Adams, chief executive of Queensland-based charity yourtown, which manages the hotline, said the children who called spoke most often of lockdown-induced loneliness and uncertainty about what their lives will be like after the pandemic, and they expressed anger, sadness, loss and grief.
This year the charity has also observed an increase in calls from five-year-olds, and more children expressing suicidal ideation.
“When you look at the numbers you can’t help but be really concerned and distressed, as what we’re continuing to see is young people really struggling to find their way through the pandemic,” Ms Adams said.
Victorian Minister for Education and Mental Health James Merlino said the Andrews government had invested more than $28 million ensuring government school students continue to have access to professional mental health support, either in person or virtually.
“We’ve also sped up the rollout of the vital mental health practitioners in secondary schools, meaning every government secondary school in the state will have a mental health professional on board by the end of this year,” he said. “These practitioners are continuing to provide support to students during periods of remote learning.”
Mr Merlino on Sunday announced a site for Victoria’s first child and family mental health centre. The $7.3 million, 12-bed facility is designed to deliver residential mental health and wellbeing treatment to children aged under 11, allowing them to stay with and be supported by their families.
Kids Helpline 1800 55 1800.
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