Various strands of my past career and my current activity seem very relevant this week as there has been much talk of children and mental health.
I trained as a child psychotherapist working in the NHS with families, mainly from deprived backgrounds, whose children were struggling with their emotions and their behaviour. Sometimes it was clear to me that the level of stress and anxiety in parents and their own sense of their apparent worthlessness was affecting their children. Other times it was clear that the children had something akin to a "condition" and without medication or intensive treatment they would be struggling even in the best possible environments.
I worked for a number of years at ChildLine, as both counselling manager and chief executive. Here I learned first-hand how to reach out to children in distress and how many children needed to know there was somewhere they could turn for help. Most of the children who called had mental health issues, such as distress relating to bullying or anxiety about exams. For some children it was clear that their distress would develop into mental illness if nothing was done. Others already were struggling intensely and were not receiving the help that they desperately needed.
I also learned at ChildLine that we need to do two things - we need to make sure that there are high quality and adequate services to support and build resilience in children and to prevent mental issues becoming mental illnesses. We need other services which can provide specialist evidence based interventions to those most in need. As chair of YoungMinds I know about the paucity of provision, the challenges facing families with youngsters disabled by mental illness and the hurdles facing mental health practitioners who are stretched to the limits.
And we need to do something else. We need to listen to these children's voices and hear what they are saying. We need to think about what we can do as a society to prevent increasing numbers of young people becoming anxious, depressed and suicidal. We need to think about what we can do to provide healthy societies. We need to take on board that more unequal societies have higher levels of mental illness.
One of the fundamental inequalities of concern to me now in my role at Young Women's Trust (YWT) is gender. Our report, No Country for Young Women showed shocking levels of mental distress among young people and particularly young women aged 18-30 (38% compared to 29% of young men). NHS Digital, based on their Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing, recently reported that young women were most at risk of mental health issues. Girlguiding's recent report also suggested that girl's well-being is deteriorating with 16% of their sample of 7-21 year olds now saying they are not happy and 69% of these girls saying they are not good enough.
This is not to say that boys and young men don't have challenges too. Of course they do and often, in my experience, they leave it very late to ask for help. Addressing gender inequalities will help them too.
What does it take for us to take children's concerns more seriously? How can we ensure that NHS budgets reflect the scale of the need, that every school has easy access to advice and support from mental health practitioners? Surely we can do something about the relentless bombardment of sexualised images and effectively challenge the exaggerated gender stereotypes that exist even in baby clothes and toys let alone later in the work-place? Can we not impose some controls on accessibility of porn and social media?
We know already that half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14 and that mental distress costs the economy in England over £105 billion each year. I profoundly hope that all the recent reports and publicity translate into actions that really make a difference.
Useful websites and helplines:
- Samaritans offers a listening service which is open 24 hours a day, on 116 123 (UK and ROI - this number is FREE to call and will not appear on your phone bill.)