Key points

  • Mental health is a human right all children and young people have, but the coronavirus pandemic has affected its realisation in Scotland.
  • Fewer children and young people are being seen by mental health professionals. This may affect how many mental health issues are being diagnosed and treated.
  • Children and young people aren’t always confident in finding mental health information, and usually aren’t involved in creating it.
  • Going forward, Scotland needs to see mental health support as a universal service.

Mental health is a human right

Children and young people have the human right to the best mental health possible. You have the right to be mentally fulfilled, and when you aren’t you have the right to access the information and the help you need.

But we know the coronavirus pandemic and measures taken to combat it have had serious impacts on the mental health of children and young people in Scotland. 39% of 11 to 24-year-olds have reported concerns about their mental wellbeing, and 32% of UK 16 to 24-year-olds report feeling overwhelmed by panic and anxiety every day.

And in a UK survey, 83% of those with existing mental health problems said the pandemic had made these worse.

Green health cross with a thumbs-up symbolising approval.

UNCRC Article 24

I have the right to be as healthy as possible


Article 24 of the UNCRC says that people should know about the health services they have access to. They should get information about physical and mental health, and they should know about the services they can use if they have difficulties with either.

Young people have the right to get information about their health in private, without a parent or guardian’s knowledge. While as a child it might have been in their best interests for a parent or guardian to make decisions about their health, young people should be able to choose which services they need.


The Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland gives advice about rights in relation to mental health care and treatment.

NHS Choices – Young People and Mental Health offers advice and information about a variety of mental health problems, as well as links to useful resources.

Breathing Space is a helpline staffed by trained advisors. They will listen and provide support and advice (tel. 0800 83 85 87).

An Impact Assessment for the coronavirus pandemic

We supported the Observatory of Children’s Human Rights Scotland to create an Alternative Children’s Rights Impact Assessment, looking at the laws and policies passed in Scotland in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Impact Assessment looked at how these had affected children and young people in nine different areas, and mental health was one of these. It found that mental health had been affected in a lot of ways.


Adults in power often make decisions that affect people― such as laws and policies. When they do this, they don’t always think about the impact these decisions will have on children and young people.

A Children’s Rights Impact Assessment, or CRIA,is a way to include children and young people in a decision. It looks at the ways the decision might affect the rights of children and young people― both positively and negatively.

By doing this, it means people know what the effect of the decision on children and young people is likely to be.

What needs to change as a result of this Impact Assessment?

Our office has made several recommendations around what Scottish Government and others need to change as a result of what this Impact Assessment has found. They’re changes which will help keep human rights promises to children and young people as we recover from the coronavirus pandemic, and which will safeguard their human rights in any future crisis.

What did the Impact Assessment find out about mental health?

We know lockdown will have long-term impacts on children and young people’s mental health, but the Impact Assessment found that there haven’t been many measures to combat these.

For example, it found that fewer children and young people are being seen by medical professionals, so mental health problems may be being underdiagnosed.

And there have been serious access issues for those with a diagnosis. Face-to-face services outside hospitals closed in late March, and in a UK-wide survey a quarter of children with existing mental health problems reported not being able to access support.

As well as this, in some places Scots law defines people aged 16 and 17 as adults, meaning some mental health safeguards may not apply to them. That’s not consistent with international law— safeguards intended to protect the human rights of children should apply to everyone under the age of 18.

What are some issues around mental health support and information?

It’s not always safe or possible to access mental health support

Some children and young people will have found it hard to access a place that they know is private during lockdown, and they might not feel safe or able to discuss mental health when they’re not sure if someone is listening to them.

As well as this, a lot of information and support around mental health is now available online, so digitally excluded children and young people may find it difficult or impossible to access.

You’re not always confident about how to find mental health information…

Although children and young people have said you want to find information about your mental health, you don’t all know how to find it. A survey found 40% of 11 to 24-year-olds in the UK weren’t confident about accessing support around their mental health and wellbeing.

…and you’re not often involved in creating it

Children and young people should be involved in creating the information that goes out to them. You should help work on it so that it’s easy to understand and take action from, and so it’s distributed in ways that will actually reach you.

But children and young people aren’t as involved as you should be in developing information around mental health and wellbeing. Because of this, some of the information that exists might not meet your information rights.

Therapies accessed at school might not be available

Many children and young people access therapies through schools and early years. These aren’t all available while those places are closed.

Various delays are affecting your access to support

The coronavirus pandemic has led to changes and delays in several assessments, reviews and other processes throughout the public sector. Some of these will have had a negative impact on mental health rights.

For example, decisions and appeals on school placement requests may mean a child doesn’t don’t know which school they’re supposed to go to before schools reopen again in August. As school placement can come with access to related therapies and support services, delays in placement can mean there are delays in getting these.

What’s changed if you’re detained under mental health laws?

You can be detained on mental health grounds for longer, and when it’s not in your best interests

The amount of time children and young people can be detained under mental health legislation has increased, and checks to make sure emergency detention is in your best interests are no longer required.

With these checks taken away, children and young people detained under mental health laws might not get help quickly if things get worse for them. If you were to need different treatment or support, you might not be able to get it.

Some barriers to having a say may have been removed

Some of the laws and policies brought in during the pandemic might enhance your right to have a say. For example, children under 16 now have the ability to nominate a named person under mental health legislation— someone who looks after their interests while they are detained under mental health laws.

What are some issues for mental health in Young Offenders’ Institutions?

Young people in Young Offenders’ Institutions can’t always access services

16 and 17-year-olds in Young Offenders’ Institutions are currently treated as adults, which means some of them are unable to access children’s mental health services.

Young people in Young Offenders’ Institutions can’t contact their families

Young people in Young Offenders’ Institutions and residential care can no longer be visited by their families. In practice these young people often don’t have access to the internet, so they also can’t contact their families online.

This lack of family contact is likely to have a significant impact on children’s mental health.