This Children's Mental Health Week we are reminded that all too often it is our next generation who is disproportionately affected by our country's inadequate mental health services. The tragedy is that while we know it is most effective to intervene early when a mental health concern first arises, which in many cases is in childhood, young people's provision is a Cinderella service within our NHS.
Many people would be shocked to learn that 75% of mental illness starts before the age of 18, and in the average classroom there will be three children living with a mental health problem. Yet unfortunately this level of prevalence in our society is not matched by availability of services for children and adolescents in our healthcare system. Left untreated, a minor mental health complaint is likely to be stored up and re-emerge as something much more serious later in life.
Early intervention and prevention has become the hegemonic mantra of mental health professionals and campaigners alike. You would struggle to find someone involved in the field of mental health who would advocate sweeping problems under the carpet to deal with at a later date, by which point they will have become much more acute. But that is the situation we find ourselves in. The Government has made considerable cuts which have decimated the buffers which used to help prevent young people becoming unwell in the first place - children's centres, school nurses, youth services, educational psychologists - the list goes on.
Recently the Children's Society exposed the link between household debt and children's mental illness. If we could tackle household debt, and reduce the stress and anxiety of young people growing up with the impact of poverty and loan sharks or bailiffs knocking at the door, then we could prevent mental illness. Instead, we wait until crisis hits, and only then do we intervene, often too late, and in the wrong ways.
Another key area which is undervalued, and often ignored, is research into mental health. As health budgets are squeezed ever tighter, funding for research into mental health is in peril. Research is always an easy candidate for cuts when it comes to making tough decisions about budgets. Research by its nature is expensive, and lacks the instant results of cash diverted into acute care. And yet, it is through research into mental illness, and developing our understanding about how our minds work, that the real cost-saving breakthroughs will come.
We have made impressive advances in the treatment of mental illnesses in recent years. There have been improvements in psychiatry and in medicines, as well as attitudinal changes. Yet there is so much that we still don't know, and don't fully grasp. That's why further research is so vital. For example, the link between hormones and anxiety disorders. Or the connection between folic acid and schizophrenia. Or the link between serotonin and depression. Or the reasons our brain patterns create the conditions for obsessive-compulsive disorder.
I'm backing a new campaign by MQ, the first major charity funding scientific research into mental health, which is specifically calling for more investment into young people's mental health. Currently only £8 is spent on research per person affected by mental illness, which is 22 times less than the equivalent for cancer (£178) and 14 times less than for dementia (£110). This is obviously insufficient given the size and scale of the challenge. MQ's campaign is eye-catching: 'it's time to give a **** about mental illness,' with celebrities such as Mel C, boxer Nicola Adams, and actor Gillian Anderson signing up.
Our comprehension of what causes mental illness remains limited. Very few therapies exist specifically for children or teenagers. Our lack of knowledge means that it can take as long as ten years for people to get the right support, and sometimes they never get it at all. The current landscape is daunting but with brilliant campaigns like the one from MQ we can spread awareness and show that progress is possible. Ultimately we need to invest in research into young people's mental health to make a real difference to future generations.