Closing playgrounds has helped to fuel “a pandemic of mental health problems” among children, a parliamentary committee has warned.
The All Party Parliamentary Group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood is calling for practical measures to help children recover from repeated lockdowns, which have left too many confined for long periods at home.
Their report calls for the halting and reversal of closures of children’s playgrounds - saying it is now more important than ever to encourage more outdoor play.
Its authors said the decision to close off playgrounds during the first lockdown followed longer-term trends which have seen too many play areas sold off in recent years.
MPs said children growing up in the shadow of Covid needed far more help to recover from the pandemic, warning that one in six children are likely to be suffering from mental health problems - up from one in nine three years ago.
The new report, called Covid Generation: A Mental Health Pandemic in the Making, calls for a major investment in NHS mental health services and an expansion in research.
And it demands wider changes, to boost the amount of time children spend active and outdoors.
The report warns that spending on play facilities has fallen by 44 per cent since 2017/18, with 347 playgrounds closed since 2014. It also calls for “outdoor play” to be put on the National Curriculum, warning that the lack of free play, and the amount of time spent glued to screens, is fuelling a rise in children’s mental health disorders.
Experts said the closures of children’s playgrounds and play facilities across the country during the first lockdown had exacerbated such problems, adding to frustration and anxiety.
And they said that many children had also suffered fallout from their parents’ stresses during the pandemic, with many exposed to heavier drinking at home.
Author Prof Tamsin Ford, Professor of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the University of Cambridge, said: “Children have been very, very hard hit; in terms of their education, their development and their health. We need to respond to that so that we don't scar a generation.”
She said what while more help was needed, and training to identify those who were struggling with “severe and persistent” distress, steps should also be taken needed to boost wellbeing, and keep children active and happy.
Prof Ford said: “We need to be optimising our policies to support health and well-being and that does mean keeping active, and for children it means playing; that's how they learn.
“I found it incredibly sad walking past playgrounds with tape all over them, during lockdown. We didn't do well in supporting children first time around; we should make sure that we don't make that mistake again.”
Prof Ford led research on more than 3,000 families which last summer classed 16 per cent of children aged five to 16 as having a “probable” mental disorder - a rise from 10.8 per cent in 2017.
She said mental health research was particularly poorly funded, with around £9 per person with a mental health problem, compared with £288 for those with cancer, saying far more scrutiny of the problem, and the most effective treatments, was needed.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists has said that around 1.5 million children could need additional mental health support as a result of the pandemic.
Lead author Helen Clark said the mental health crisis among the young was “a ticking time bomb,” with psychiatrists warning that the fallout from lockdown could be the greatest threat to mental health since the second world war.
The new report, involving 41 charities, academics, and children’s play specialists, was sponsored by MQ Mental Health Research.
Its chief executive, Lea Milligan said: “The most vulnerable in our society are the ones who will be carrying the heaviest burden post-pandemic. The increase in mental illness in the UK was already an alarming trend before covid struck. Now it is an emergency.”
“Without action, many of our children could face a lifetime of depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses,” he said.