The mental health of children in the UK is in crisis: 90% of school leaders have seen an increase in the number of students experiencing anxiety and stress over the last five years, according to research by Young Minds.
And one in ten children aged five to 16 has a diagnosable mental illness, according to The Royal College of Psychiatrists.
Earlier this year Theresa May laid out new plans to help children who suffer from mental illness. However, with the UK general election looming, there is growing concern that children’s mental health may get sidelined to make way for more attention-grabbing policies.
“As Brexit continues to dominate, the danger is that decision-makers will be distracted from addressing the issues affecting children’s everyday lives,” Anna Feuchtwang, chief executive of the National Children’s Bureau (NCB), told HuffPost UK.
“But we owe it to children – who don’t have a vote – to make sure that their wellbeing is a priority.”
“We’ve finally reached a point where children’s mental health is firmly on the policy agenda, but our political leaders are yet to turn rhetoric into change on the ground,” continued Feuchtwang.
“The next government must go full steam ahead with the planned consultation (Green Paper on transforming mental health support), if not, they will be sending a clear message that children’s health is not a priority.”
With this in mind, HuffPost UK asked mental health charities and bodies representing psychiatrists, counsellors and psychotherapists, what they would like to see the next government - regardless of party - prioritising to ensure a better outcome for our children’s mental health.
Here are the 13 things the next government is being called on to do:
1. Make emotional education as important as literacy and numeracy in schools.
There is widespread concern that school resources are currently too focused on exam results, leaving little room for teachers and staff to concentrate on children’s mental health.
Numerous charities would like to see students’ mental health valued as highly as academic achievement.
“Learning to manage your emotions is as important as learning to read and write,” said Samaritans CEO Ruth Sutherland.
“Children and young people experience a range of issues during their school and college life that can impact their emotional and mental wellbeing.
“Encouraging children and young people to talk about difficult feelings early helps ensure they’re better equipped to cope with life, no matter what comes their way.
“The government must ensure every child and young person has the opportunity to acquire these essential skills, both through compulsory PSHE (personal, social and health education) and by insisting there’s a focus on good emotional health and wellbeing throughout school life.”
Sarah Brennan, CEO of Young Minds added: “We urgently need to rebalance our education system, so that schools are able to prioritise wellbeing and not just exam results.
“We urge the next government to establish emotional wellbeing and mental health as a fundamental priority of schools in legislation and the Ofsted inspection framework and provide schools with designated funding for wellbeing provision.”
Adam Shaw, chairman of The Shaw Mind Foundation, added that for this to happen he believes schools need to take a “whole-school” approach to mental wellbeing.
“So far, mental health education has been a small part of personal, social, health and economic (PSHE) education lessons – this has failed to give adequate weight to the subject, and it is not taught uniformly across the country,” he explained.
“The promotion of wellbeing cannot be confined to PSHE lessons. A whole-school approach is needed.
“We would like to see a commitment from the new government to making mental health education a compulsory part of the curriculum.
“We strongly believe that schools are the best starting point to changing the attitude of society towards mental heath conditions.”
2. Ensure funding for mental health provision in schools is ring-fenced and gets to where it needs to be.
In 2015 the government announced £1.25bn in extra funding for mental health. However, a recent report by the Health and Education Committees stated that as school funding has been cut, an increasing number are scaling back on mental health services such as in-school counsellors.
“Some of the schools we work with have described the current financial situation as a ‘perfect storm’,” said Catherine Roche, CEO at Place2Be.
“It is a real day-to-day struggle for some and headteachers are having to make very difficult decisions about how they spend their budgets.
“We hope that the next government will prioritise funding for children’s mental wellbeing in schools - enabling children to flourish into adults who are able to manage their mental health, cope with life’s problems and engage fully in society.”
Feuchtwang, from the NCB, added: ”With huge funding constraints, schools are struggling to provide the pastoral care that children need. The next government must urgently provide these resources in school.”
3. Employ a trained counsellor in every school.
The recent report by the Health and Education Committees highlighted that counsellors are one of the main areas schools are cutting back on due to funding cuts. This is something many charities would like to see reversed.
“We are calling on the next government to dedicate funding to support a specialist mental health expert in every primary and secondary school in the country,” commented Roche, from Place2Be.
“This will support a ‘whole-school’ approach to understanding and addressing children’s mental health needs.”
Dr Andrew Reeves, chair of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP), explained that there is plenty of evidence that this recommendation would have a positive effect.
“We know that school-based counselling is a cost-effective and proven early intervention that improves children and young people’s mental health and emotional wellbeing,” he said.
“Children in Northern Ireland and Wales already have access to a school counsellor through government supported national programmes, with proven success.
“Without further political impetus England’s children will continue to remain behind their peers in Wales and Northern Ireland in terms of emotional support. We want to see progress on the expectations set out in 2015 in the Department for Education’s ‘Counselling for schools: a blueprint for the future’ and call for a trained counsellor in every secondary school in England.
“All children and young people of school age across the UK should have equal access to professional, qualified counselling services in their schools.”
4. Train teachers to be able to identify issues.
The Prime Minister promised in January that teachers at every one of England’s 3,600 secondary schools will receive mental health ‘first aid’ training in the next two years.
Place2Be, Young Minds and Rethink Mental Illness would like to see the next government going further by formally including mental health education in Teacher Training.
“One in ten young people will experience a mental health problem at some point and it’s crucial that schools are able to identify issues and provide support,” said Heidi Stewart, director of enterprise and innovation at Rethink Mental Illness.
“Spotting problems early can stop any issues building up and getting worse over time, and schools are uniquely placed to help with this.”
5. Support schools to form ‘mental health improvement clusters’.
The Royal College of Psychiatrists’ has published a manifesto to improve the nation’s mental health in which they suggest that schools should be supported to create local “mental health improvement clusters”.
“Clusters, with dedicated funding, would work together to identify how to provide better mental health support for their pupils, learning from each other’s successes and pooling resources,” they explain.
“For example, a visiting school counsellor could work with their local NHS service to help several schools in a cluster.”
6. Make sure support is there for those who seek it by guaranteeing additional and sustained funding for Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS).
It’s one thing equipping children and young people with the emotional intelligence necessary to be able to discuss their mental health, but they also need to know their cries for help will be heard.
Nearly a quarter of young people who seek help for mental health issues are turned away, according to research published by the the Education Policy Institute in 2016.
“Far too many vulnerable young people are waiting months for specialist mental health treatment, or being turned away because their problems aren’t considered serious enough – even if they are self-harming or feeling suicidal,” said Brennan, from Young Minds.
“That is why it’s vital that the next government guarantees that services are properly funded.”
Heidi Stewart, from Rethink Mental Illness said that “decades of under-funding” have left services “overstretched and of patchy quality”.
“We need to make sure mental health services are up to scratch,” she said.
“There has been a lot of positive talk from politicians over the last few months, but too many young people still aren’t able to get the support they need when they need it.
“The next government will have to go beyond talk to make sure real change is happening on the ground where people need it most.”
The Royal College of Psychiatrists would also welcome government investment in CAMHS.
“Sustained additional investment is needed for CAMHS, which should be ring-fenced to ensure it reaches children,” their manifesto states.
“Without the right treatment and care at the right time, mental health problems can worsen and persist into adulthood, as more than half of mental ill-health starts before the age of 14.
“Poor mental health makes it hard for children to cope at school, but many find it difficult to access NHS services because the system is overstretched. The associated poor mental and physical health outcomes, as well as reduced attainment, attendance and productivity, have far reaching consequences into later life.”
The NCB, the Shaw Mind Foundation and Place2Be are all calling on the next government to ensure mental health care is treated with the same importance as physical health care and to ensure equality of funding between the two.
According to Young Minds, CAMHS currently receives just 0.7% of the NHS budget and less than 7% of the mental health budget.
During 2014/15, £1.4bn was pledged over five years to
“transform” CAMHS - but the charity’s research suggests that not all of this money is going where it was intended.
Because of this Young Minds urges the next government to: “Calculate the true cost of providing support to all the children and young people who need it, and guarantee long-term, sustainable funding to ensure that this can happen.
“In the interim, reaffirm the existing NHS mental health spending commitments until 2020 and invest at least a further £250 - £300 million year-on-year to 2022/23 in CAMHS.
“Introduce a CAMHS Investment Standard to ensure that all money allocated to local Clinical Commissioning Groups for CAMHS is spent where it is intended, and not siphoned off for other priorities.”
7. Create a strong connection between schools and NHS CAMHS.
The charities and the Royal College of Psychiatrists emphasise that work being done by CAMHS and mental health resources in schools need to be connected.
“Schools have a key role in promoting good mental health in children, and identifying when children are experiencing mental distress, but they cannot do this alone,” the Royal College states.
“This crisis needs to be tackled by bringing schools and expanded NHS CAMHS closer together, to give children and young people effective support in the school environment.”
Roche backed up this recommendation.
“Place2Be calls on the next government to ensure that children’s mental health is seen as the joint responsibility of both Education and Health services and recognise the need to work together to prioritise early intervention and prevention - so that this is not just seen as a school responsibility,” she said.
8. Invest in training for mental health professionals.
Roche said Place2Be would like to see the next government “invest in recruiting and developing the mental health professionals of tomorrow to ensure a supply of skilled counsellors and mental health experts able to support children and young people in schools”.
9. Require that all children’s services understand the impact of childhood trauma on young people’s mental health.
One in three mental health problems in adulthood stem from adverse experiences in childhood – including abuse, neglect, bereavement or taking on adult responsibilities at a young age, according to Young Minds.
So the charity wants the next government to raise awareness of the impact of childhood trauma or adverse experiences among commissioners, providers and the general public.
They also want them to “ensure that schools, social workers, NHS staff and other services that work with children fully understand the impact of trauma on children’s behaviour and emotional wellbeing so that they do not unwittingly re-traumatise them.”
10. Provide support for children whose parents have mental health problems.
“We would like to see more support given to the many thousands of children in the UK whose parents have a severe and enduring mental illness, and who often sacrifice their childhoods to care for their parents,” said Shaw.
11. Focus on suicide prevention by equipping young people with every possible resource for resiliency.
“I hope that the new government will not allow suicide prevention to fall off its radar,” said Ged Flynn, chief executive of PAPYRUS Prevention of Young Suicide.
“And that it will finally recognise that, since suicide is THE leading cause of death among young people in the UK, we must not rest until the state helps to equip young people with every resource possible in order for them to live with resiliency and support for their emotional and mental health.”
Shaw added that he would like to see the new government set a target to reduce suicide rates by half over the next 15 years.
12. Strengthen and enforce rights for children in mental health hospitals.
Surveys by YoungMinds have found that only 43% of parents think their child’s mental health has improved while in hospital, while many young people and parents feel unable to challenge crucial decisions about treatment and medication.
So the charity is calling on the next government to: “Develop a comprehensive charter setting out the rights of young people and their families or carers when they are treated in specialist mental health hospitals.
“Ensure that all young people who spend time in mental health hospitals, and their families, understand their rights and are supported to challenge any decisions about their treatment that they aren’t happy with.
“End the use of harmful practices in hospital, including the reliance on prone restraint and chemical restraint and the overuse of seclusion.”
13. Give families an equal say on the mental health care and services they receive.
Young Minds believe that mental health services are more likely to be effective if they are set up with children and young people’s needs and experiences at the centre.
So they would like the next government to “ensure all planning for children and young people’s treatment and care gives an equal say to their opinions, needs and preferences, and involves their families.
“And ensure that mental health services are always meaningfully co-produced with children and young people, and their families, to meets the needs of the people who are using them.”