Childline Gibraltar has seen a staggering increase of mental health related contacts, its CEO Caroline Carter Olivero has said, detailing that children lack the support structure they had prior to the pandemic.
Last year Childline Gibraltar received 900 contacts, 60% of these were related to mental health, and for the first time in the charity's 15 year history anxiety is the top reason for contacting its helplines.
In Childline's 2019 - 2020 annual report published in December 2020, some 19% of contacts were mental health related. At the time this came second to general support, which garnered 27% of calls.
The findings echo a survey carried out last year where Public Health Gibraltar found a third of Gibraltarian adults reported having anxiety since the pandemic.
For Mrs Carter Olivero the surge in mental health related calls comes down to one major factor - children are less social than there were two years ago.
The pandemic has caused two years of less social interaction during crucial years of development for children and teenagers.
Compounding this issue, Mrs Carter Olivero stressed, is that children's needs have heightened in this pandemic and, at the same time, the support structure they have access to has been the lowest in their lives.
Mrs Carter Olivero explained the support structure for youngsters ranges from friends and family to teachers and school counsellors.
She explained isolation and less social contact meant children had fewer ways of reaching out when in need of help.
These early interventions, from just talking to a friend, can ease the child's situation.
Without being able to socialise as often these issues if not vocalised and aided earlier, could lead to crisis point.
"Children have had the least amount of support than they ever have had, with other support structures that are no longer in place because of the Covid pandemic," Mrs Carter Olivero said.
Childline Chairperson, Annie Green, highlighted that in these past two formative years for youngsters they would have missed out in social experiences that could have shaped them.
"When we look at the content of the calls that are coming to us," Mrs Carter Olivero said.
"We have seen a huge, unprecedented increase in anxiety. Anxiety has increased significantly this year. Never has anxiety been the top reason for contacting us."
"But if you look at all the different topics that children speak to us, including self-harm and suicidal thoughts, mental health issues we find are the biggest reason that children contact us."
"Over 60% of all our calls have to do with children's mental health this last year, which is staggeringly high, higher than ever before."
"This demonstrates that their needs have increased significantly, and the impact of social restrictions has taken a toll on our young people."
This is where Childline steps in, their helpline 8008 or WhatsApp 58008288, means children can access free counselling every day, and crisis cases can be referred to the relevant authorities.
"It's such a shame that so many children reach crisis point and contact us, and we need more support in that early intervention element to prevent their anxiety being as high as they are getting to this year," Mrs Carter Olivero said.
Without that support network, Childline is finding that children's resilience is lower.
"And the missed opportunities we have had in previous years," Mrs Green said.
Mrs Carter Olivero said children need early intervention and Childline has worked to introduce programmes and 15 children have been trained as Childline Wellbeing Champions.
Over 1,400 people have attended Childline's early intervention programmes and their Champions are trained to seek out fellow students in need of help.
When Childline first launched 15 years ago the charity on average received 200 calls a year, last year Childline volunteers answered 900 contacts, including calls, WhatsApp messages, email and the online Live Chat service.
The charity receives between 17 and 18 contacts a month, and 95% of these contacts are text based.
The charity found it was essential to introduce text services as children in isolation at home are unable to talk on the phone in fear family members will hear.
Childline found the Covid-19 pandemic and isolation placed a strain on family relationships, which also led to many calls.
"Covid had a knock-on impact on families," Mrs Carter Olivero said.
Mrs Green added the pandemic had an inevitable impact on families, causing stress.
Most contacts to Childline stay confidential, but in crisis cases, trained helpline volunteers need to step in to ensure the safety of the child.
The charity has found referrals have been made for three reasons: a crisis in mental health, neglect and physical harm.
For Childline the pandemic also means that fundraising is more challenging.
"The fundraising events that we are holding are raising less funds than before," Mrs Carter Olivero said.
But Mrs Green stressed there has been no degradation in the service during this difficult time.
The charity aims to deliver more early programmes to curb mental health issues reaching crisis points.
"Social media has played a huge part in increasing anxiety overall in our community, more so than we realised," Mrs Carter Olivero said.
She added sexting is an issue in Gibraltar, which also causes youngsters anxiety.
Mrs Green said the charity had trained 12 new Appropriate Adult volunteers over the past year, and the charity has been seeing repeat offenders.
Currently the charity has 55 volunteers running the 24 hour on call service.
Childline will be publishing their 2021 annual report in due course.