Time to take action on the scandalous state of our children’s mental health

Can you imagine having to wait until a physical illness was at crisis point before you could get treatment?

"Yes, sir, you have a compound fracture of your leg and your bone is sticking out of your skin but we're going to wait until it becomes infected before we treat it, which will probably lead to amputation."

This is effectively the situation that we have reached with children's mental health.

Worrying new research was released last week, showing that 84% of NHS psychotherapists, counsellors and psychoanalysts believe children now need to have more serious levels of mental ill health in order to get help.

Children’s mental health has risen up the public policy agenda in recent years and it’s good news that this is no longer a niche issue, and is now receiving attention. However, the scale of the problems is seriously concerning and change is taking too long. Years of under-investment in children and young people's mental health requires major and sustained attention to bring about the necessary change. We also need to take a prevention and early intervention approach to this issue.

How bad is the current situation?

We know that half of mental health problems start by age 14 and 75% start by age 24.

Our research for Mental Health Awareness Week this year showed that 65% of us have experienced a mental health problem at some point in our lives and that just 13% of us are living with high levels of positive mental health.

It seems obvious that addressing mental health problems in children and young people will prevent problems developing in adult life. But not enough is being done to tackle mental health problems before they become entrenched.

An incentive to become more ill

If 84% of NHS psychotherapists, counsellors and psychoanalysts believe children need to have more serious levels of mental ill health in order to get help, then there is essentially an incentive for our children’s mental health problems to get worse.

And it's not just those working in the NHS who have noticed this. At a recent community workshop for our THRIVE programme, I spoke to many people including parents, teachers and community workers who expressed similar concerns about lack of early intervention.

This frightening trend will see children become more ill, and therefore make it more difficult to get better, leaving them with a longer path to recovery. It will also force more children into clinical care settings that they are less comfortable in and which are often far from home, which can only further exacerbate their mental health problems. It’s a vicious cycle which we need to avoid for as many children as possible.

The problems go beyond purely the human side of things, too (as if that weren’t enough). It is little wonder that the NHS is in financial crisis when it is waiting for people to be at crisis point to treat them. Mental ill health costs health and social care an estimated £21 billion per year. How much less would that be if we were treating problems at an early stage?

We know how to prevent mental health problems in children

The picture is bleak at the moment, but it needn’t be that way. The government’s recent Green Paper on children’s mental health proposes that each school  appoints a designated mental health lead. This is positive, but isn’t enough. Mental health is too important an issue for it to be left to one person in each school. All teachers and school staff have a role to play, as do children and young people themselves.

We need a whole-school community approach to promoting and addressing emotional and mental health. Core to this is providing more training for teachers in understanding positive child development, and encouraging them to create mentally healthy and nurturing learning environments.

Last, but by no means least, children themselves also need to be equipped with the tools they need to thrive. We need to ensure our children can understand, protect and sustain their mental health - just like they are taught about their physical health.  

Children also need to be trained to be able to spot the signs of difficulties among their friends. Having good relationships is vital for a mentally healthy life and encouraging a caring, aware and understanding community of young people will enable them to live far mentally healthier lives than their predecessors.

Finally, it's also important to consider whether in developing our social, economic and cultural policies we take sufficient account of their impact on people's mental health – including that of children and young people. Prevention needs to be built in to the contexts in which children, young people and their families live, not added on as an after-thought once their mental distress becomes apparent.

We need your help

We’re working hard to address mental ill health in children by giving them and their teachers the tools they need to improve their own mental health and that of their friends and peers. Our Peer Education Project uses an innovative approach in which older pupils teach younger ones about mental health, equipping them with the necessary tools to look after their own mental health and that of their peers. We can’t do this without your help - please consider a donation today.

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