It is a crucial time to make the case for children and young people's mental health services

14 February 2013

From April this year, responsibility for public health will be handed over from the NHS to local authorities.

The passing on of the baton, is bold and contentious, and has been made smoother by the promise of extra resources - the reorganisation will mean a 10.8% increase in public health funding over the next two years.

On the surface this switch seems unproblematic. One could be forgiven for thinking that any potential problems would be absorbed by the increase in funding. Critics of the policy may be seen by implication, as attacking the 10 per cent increase in public health spending seeing the policy as having an in-built defence mechanism to deflect criticism. It's important not to let this deter us. The reality of the situation is more complex and it is important to get to grips with what this change in policy really means and how it will affect the mental health of children and young people.

The core of the problem is that although the funding for public health is ring-fenced, there is no stipulation of how much should be allocated to CYP services, and there is genuine concern that CYP services will be the ones to suffer. This concern is not unfounded. We have already seen 400 Sure Start children's centres shut down since 2010, and over half of those still open have stopped providing any on-site childcare. It is clear that when spending needs to be cut, CYP services are seen in some areas as the most dispensable. This is a costly mistake to make. Is the UK lacking a child focused culture?

Common sense holds that prevention is better than cure and there are strong socio-economic reasons for investing in prevention and early intervention of mental illness. We know that 50% of people with lifetime mental health problems first experience symptoms by the age of 14. The earlier we can help, the better. The plasticity of the brain means that children and young people can learn to regulate emotions, cope with instinctive negative emotions and build resilience for the future with the right learning and support. As obvious as it sounds, it is too often forgotten that children with mental health problems will often turn into adults with mental health problems, problems that are more entrenched and more difficult to treat. There is also a sound economic basis for investment in this area. Recent research has shown that £17 is saved for £1 spent on pre-school educational programmes for 3-4 year olds in low-income families.

However, it is not enough to simply reel off a list of general statistics. The argument needs to be refined and focused on a local level. We must ensure that Health and Well Being Boards are provided with strong evidence based information to inform their commissioning strategy for CYP mental health. Through the Children & Young People's Mental Health Coalition's Public Mental Health Workstream and the Schools Workstream, we are aiming to influence all players in CYP mental health field, to push for more funding and focus on early intervention and prevention programmes.

It’s a crucial time to make the case and to influence thinking about the opportunity of investing early. We need to present a strong case while the audience is captive and the balls are in the air waiting to be re-configured.