Soaring numbers of children are being treated for anxiety disorders across Northern Ireland, an expert has revealed.
A total of to 50 children are being referred to specialists every week by just two health trusts.
However, the South Eastern Trust alone made a shocking 70 referrals per week in a peak period last year.
The alarming figures – relating to children as young as eight – are in line with national statistics, which saw 10,000 youngsters treated for anxiety in hospitals across the UK in 2015/16.
A breakdown in relationships between parents and children is cited as one key driver.
Billie Hughes, children’s services manager at Belfast’s Beechcroft Child and Adolescent Inpatient Unit, said the worrying trend is happening across the board, with kids from all backgrounds affected.
“Children are increasingly anxious about all sorts of things,” she said. “We are seeing youngsters come to us who are terrified of leaving their parents, of going to school.
“They’re worried about eating at school, doing their homework, getting things wrong, making friends. It is a very big, and growing, concern.
“Belfast sees up to 30 a week and in the South Eastern Board we are now at a steady 20 or so a week and that peak of 70 a week has calmed down, thankfully.
“We were getting into troubled water for a while because we had so much demand around anxiety our waiting lists were being hit,” she added.
Much of the problem, according to Mrs Hughes, stems from technology.
“The obvious problem with technology is kids’ own access to phones, iPads and social media,” she added.
“In the past if a child was being bullied at school, the abuse stopped when the day ended.
“But now it follows them into their homes, into their beds at night where they can see nasty comments on their phones. It’s a lot for children and teenagers to deal with, and anxiety naturally follows in many cases.”
But it’s not just children’s relationships with technology that is causing problems, said Mrs Hughes – parents’ addiction to their devices is making an impact too.
“It’s easily done, and we understand parents are busy,” she said. “But we have children who aren’t getting that basic, essential social interaction. They go for a walk with their mums and dads and the parents are on the phone the whole time. They have their dinner on their own while the parents are working.
“I even heard of a woman who has developed an app to teach her child how to recognise emotion – because the child was not getting that from natural, human interaction.
“It’s this sort of thing that is really causing big issues, and with a few changes to their own behaviour, parents can make a big difference.”
Tackling the problem early and head-on is important, said Mrs Hughes, because anxiety in childhood can cause major problems, and lead to devastating consequences for families.
“Anxiety can manifest itself quite seriously in physical ways,” she added. “We have children coming to us with vomiting problems, headaches, digestion issues.
“Parents are of course worried, but sometimes I come down into the foyer of the clinic here and while the children are nervously waiting for their appointments, the mums and dads are flicking through their phones.
“In these situations, children need direct contact and attention. It’s very often back to basics stuff.
“One technique is called mindfulness, but all it means is going for a walk and talking to your child about what you can see, the birds and the trees and the things around you.
“It can be just as simple as engaging with them – and remembering to laugh and relax and have fun. All these things can make a big difference.”
The good news, said Mrs Hughes, is that in most cases big improvements can be seen quite quickly.
“For the younger kids when we have early intervention, a six to eight week course of treatment will do it,” she said. “We’ll teach them and their parents techniques like mindfulness, or use cognitive behavioural therapy to make improvements.
“It’s when they come to us a bit later, when anxiety may have developed into other issues like obsessive compulsive disorder, that things take a bit more time to resolve.”