A Matter of Mental Health: Why We Need to Take Action to Support Children

25/04/2016 11:04

"When I feel sad it's hard to learn."

"I want my teachers to be aware I'm putting on a brave face."

We are all aware of the pressures social media can impress on us (even as adults) to present the very best, and most exciting, versions of ourselves. So while young people might act like their biggest concern is what to wear, or where the best party is on Friday night, it is important to recognize that this can mask very real difficulties they may be experiencing.

The stresses and concerns faced by children and young people today are many - and include but are not limited to those influenced by social media. Family separations, exam stress, bullying and isolation can all have a negative impact on mental health, and knowing how to find help for these problems is not always straightforward.

The statements included at the start of this blog were made by young people who participated in a Children in Scotland education project, and they shine a light on how children and young people can struggle to keep their lives going when experiencing poor mental health.

Sometimes this can mean turning to harmful coping strategies such as self-harm or other risk taking behaviour.

The NSPCC in England recently reported an 18% increase in counseling sessions relating to suicide - and that's just those who are seeking help. There are thousands of young people who are suffering in silence.

I do not want to be overly alarmist, or suggest that all young people are at risk of suicide. We work with many children and young people who display remarkable resilience, even in the face of adversity. However, neither are we talking about problems facing a tiny minority.

More than a decade ago it was reported that one in 10 children will have a diagnosable mental health condition in their school life. If this figure had been expanded to include those with "subclinical" conditions - those that don't medically qualify as having a diagnosable mental health problem such as depression or anxiety - the numbers would have been much higher.

In 2016 the picture seems equally, if not more, concerning.

The most recent World Health Organisation's Health Behaviour in School-aged Children study revealed that Scottish teenagers, specifically young girls, experience some of the worst mental health in Europe and North America. This is one league table where we don't want to come out on top.

For those at the stage of seeking help, figures published on waiting times show they face a significant delay in getting the support they desperately need. Just last year it was revealed that in one part of the country youngsters had to wait as long as six months for their first appointment; this falls significantly short of the 18-week target.

When it comes to inpatient care, the picture is not much better. Figures from the Mental Welfare Commission indicate that there are an increasing number of children and young people being admitted to adult wards that are completely unsuitable for their needs. This is due to a woeful lack of provision; there are only three regional Child and Adolescent Mental Health (CAMHS) inpatient units for the whole of Scotland.

Sadly, all of these points confirm what many of us working with children and young people already feared: life is a lottery for so many. Where you live and where you grow up determines the type and amount of care you have available, even that which should be provided as standard.

Despite a clear demand, NHS figures put spending on CAMHS services at a measly 0.45 of the NHS budget, and only 5.6 per cent of the total mental health spend. There is still a distinct lack of support for the prevention and intervention element of healthcare aimed at ensuring a healthy mind, as well as a healthy body.

There is a myriad of research into the value of prevention and early intervention. We know it reduces potential costs on healthcare and justice services in later life and helps lay the foundations for our young people to make positive contributions to society as adults.

All this evidence indicates that we need to act to change policy and legislation in this area; and we need to act fast.

The nation charity I run, Children in Scotland, is working hard to improve the mental health support available for children and young people. We have called for a dedicated ministerial-level post to be created by the next Scottish Government to raise the profile of children and adolescent mental health and promote early intervention.

Ahead of the Holyrood elections, taking place next month, we met with each of the main Scottish party leaders and were encouraged that there is widespread, cross-party agreement that more needs to be done in this area.

Given the urgency of this issue, we need and expect a concrete commitment from the Scottish government following the election next month.

Children in Scotland believe there is a real opportunity to bolster mental health throughout childhood, and beyond - but this requires a concerted effort on all fronts. Those of us concerned about the mental health of children and young people need to arm ourselves with knowledge about what helps and hinders children and young people's positive mental development. And we need to use to this to advocate for change at all levels - within families, schools, local authorities, health boards and government.

We are urging the next Scottish Government to heed our calls to make mental health a priority and appoint a minister with sole responsibility for this area and who can be a dedicated voice on mental health for the youngest and most vulnerable in our society.