We Need an Urgent Redesign of Mental Health Services for Our Young People

07/06/2016 08:14 | Updated 07 June 2016
James Darell/ Photodisc

Mental health problems affect around one in ten children, equivalent to three in every classroom. Childhood mental health problems are common, damaging, costly and persistent: they cause distress to children and families, and can cast a long shadow over a young person's life.

Centre for Mental Health has reviewed recent evidence about children's mental health and wellbeing in Britain today. We have reviewed the evidence about trends in children's mental health; about which groups of children and young people are most at risk; and about what works to give children and young people the best start in life for their mental wellbeing.

The review finds that poor mental health in childhood most commonly presents through severe behavioural problems, which mostly affect boys. Then from adolescence onwards, emotional conditions such as anxiety and depression become more common and affect more young women.

While mental health problems are common among children, some face greater risks than others. Children from the poorest households are four times as likely to have a mental health problem at age 11 than those from the wealthiest homes. Children who have been subject to maltreatment or neglect, and those who have been bullied (or who bully), face especially high risks for poor mental health.

There is more and more evidence about what helps children and young people to enjoy good mental health and to reduce the risks. Supporting women who experience anxiety or depression during pregnancy and afterwards is essential to help them to form a strong attachment with their baby. Parenting programmes that boost parents' ability to settle children who have behavioural problems can have a big impact early in life. Schools can help to promote good mental health through evidence-based classroom activities, anti-bullying programmes and raised awareness among staff of how to spot the early signs of distress and respond helpfully. And when children do have problems, it is vital that help is offered quickly to make the biggest impact.

Yet research suggests that there is an average delay of ten years between the time that young people first experience the symptoms of a mental health problem and when they receive help. Only a quarter of school-age children with a diagnosable mental health problem get any help at all, even though the majority of parents seek professional advice. And when children and families do ask for help, they are frequently confused by a maze of largely fragmented services and often face lengthy delays in getting the help they need.

There are many reasons for these long delays in getting help. Poor mental health literacy is a major barrier for parents, children, teachers and other professionals, causing uncertainty about whether there is a need to seek help. For teenagers, stigma can create a 'conspiracy of silence' that prevents them from disclosing distress. And even when young people do get help, they report finding services off-putting, unappealing or frightening.

The Government has acknowledged that major improvements to children and young people's mental health services are needed and has pledged investment of £1.4billion over the next five years. It has asked all local areas to produce Transformation Plans to improve the services they offer in return for this investment.

This is a welcome move, and it is vital that the new money is used wisely to bring about a step change in the support children and families are offered. We need all local areas to have access to high quality maternal mental health support, improved access to effective parenting programmes and sustained efforts to raise mental health literacy. We need to see schools get the right support to protect and promote mental health. And we need mental health services for young people to be redesigned in partnership with children and families so that they offer early help that is welcoming, relevant and effective.

Andy Bell is the director of the Centre for Mental Health