Damage to children’s mental health caused by the Covid crisis could last for years, the Children’s Commissioner for England has warned.

She highlighted long wait times for mental health treatment - with young people forced to wait as long as 75 days to begin treatment in parts of the North East even before the coronavirus pandemic.

The Government has set a target for children to wait no longer than 28 days for mental health services.

In a major new report published today, the Commissioner, Anne Longfield, warned that one in six children could have a mental health condition, and urged the Government to launch a major drive to help them, including an NHS-funded counsellor in every school.

She said: "It is widely accepted that lockdown and school closures have had a detrimental effect on the mental health of many children."

And she warned that mental health services for children fell far short of meeting their needs even before the Covid crisis.

The Children's Commissioner is a post created by Parliament to champion the needs of children across England.

In today's report. she warns that the coronavirus pandemic "has turned the lives of children upside down and placed the NHS under unimaginable strain."

Children have had major disruption to two years of education, and have had extremely limited opportunities to see friends and wider families, to play and enjoy activities.

Many have also been very worried about the impact of Covid on their families.

Ms Longfield said: "Taken together, this cocktail of risks and stresses appears to have taken a very heavy toll on some children.

"A large-scale study, undertaken by the NHS in July 2020, found that clinically significant mental health conditions amongst children had risen by 50% compared to three years earlier. A staggering one in six children now have a probable mental health condition.

"We do not know how far this spike will have long term consequences on children’s mental health, nor do we know the impact of further lockdowns, but it is highly likely that the level of underlying mental health problems will remain significantly higher as a result of the pandemic."

But she said that the data published in the report, including waiting times for treatment, revealed "a system without the necessary capacity or flexibility to respond to such seismic events in the lives of children".

Average waiting times for those referred to mental health services before they start treatment by Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) include:

Northumberland 31 days

Newcastle/Gateshead 57 days

North Tyneside 56 days

South Tyneside 75 days

Sunderland 72 days

North Durham 35 days

Durham Dales, Easington and Sedgefield 32 days

Ms Longfield said work had already begun to improve children's mental health services over the past five years, including the creation of Mental Health Support Teams, which are run jointly by the NHS and Department for Education.

But she said the Government’s current plan to rollout NHS-led counselling in schools to 20-25% of areas by 2023 is not ambitious enough, particularly following the Covid pandemic, and called for an NHS-funded counsellor for every school as quickly as possible.

Access to children’s mental health services is still not adequate, she said.

Around one in 25 children accessed mental health services last year, but this is around a quarter of the children who actually need mental health services.

Those that do access services often have to wait weeks or months for treatment, and last year only one in five of children referred to services started treatment within 4 weeks.

Ms Longfield said: "Even before the Covid pandemic, we faced an epidemic of children’s mental health problems in England and a children’s mental health service that, though improving significantly, was still unable to provide the help hundreds of thousands of children required."