Let's make this the year of mental health


The crisis in mental health services continues. Let’s make this the year when we prioritise young people’s mental health, says Pete Henshaw, editor of SecEd.

Bullying, sexual pressures, academic pressure, fear of unemployment, body image, anxiety, depression, self-harm – the mental health of our young people is under sustained attack.

While elements of these pressures have always been there for young people, especially for adolescents, I believe that in recent times these pressures have increased exponentially due to our 24/7, online, always-connected culture.

The charity YoungMinds has labelled this phenomenon an “unprecedented toxic climate” of stress, pressure and fear of failure. They are clear – 850,000 children (three in every classroom) has a diagnosable mental health problem. One in 12 young adults self-harm. Nearly 80,000 children and young people suffer from severe depression.

Sadly, even in 2014, these children are often “demonised”, to use YoungMind’s term. They are too often dismissed as being naughty or unruly, told to “get on with it, pull your socks up”, or they are simply ignored.

YoungMinds states: “There is still a huge stigma around mental health which means children and young people are not getting the support they need. Disruptive, difficult, withdrawn and disturbed kids need to be supported and not just ignored or told off.”

However, I am heartened because in schools this issue is being increasingly recognised as a serious barrier to learning and achievement – and many schools are embracing their responsibility to do something about it. The problem is, however, that some of the issues school staff are facing are so complex that only health professionals, psychologists and others are capable of handling the problems.

And this leads us to another major barrier  – Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). Over the past four years, cuts to local authority budgets have hit CAMHS hard. Figures from YoungMinds show that 59 out of 98 local authorities in England have cut or frozen their CAMHS budgets since 2010/11. This follows findings in 2013 when 34 out of 51 top tier authorities admitted they had reduced their CAMHS budget, by as much as 40 per cent in some cases.

The result is that referrals to CAMHS now take a long, long time – and I am talking months, not weeks. New government guidance – Mental Health and Behaviour in Schools – issued last term, is certainly welcome but this also stresses the route to CAMHS as a key weapon in schools’ armouries without acknowledging the problems.

Most recently, we have seen care and support minister Norman Lamb, label our mental health services as being “stuck in the dark ages” and “not fit-for-purpose”. He has now launched a ”taskforce” which will consider how services can be improved and “modernised”.

It does seem a bit rich for a coalition minister to make this complaint when its his austerity government that has to take part of the blame. But he is right and the poor position of mental health is not solely ministers’ fault – public attitudes also have to change. We are still fighting a historical legacy of stigma and ridicule of mental health illnesses. 

Research shows that by age 14, 50 per cent of lifetime mental illness, excluding dementia, has already begun (Kim-Cohen J, Caspi A, Moffit T et al, 2003). This proves the case for focusing on early intervention. I eagerly await the outcomes of Mr Lamb’s taskforce and am hoping that this will be a defining moment. 

We need a solution that will give every school quick and effective access to professionals who can spot, diagnose and handle the very complex problems many children now face. Make no mistake, this issue is just as important in our schools as numeracy, literacy and examination results and it’s high time that the government, as well as the general public, treated it as such.

Further reading
Mental Health and Behaviour in Schools: http://bit.ly/1oChNKA


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