THE BLOG

Why We Can't Afford To Reduce Children's Mental Health To A Question Of Economics

12/04/2017 17:40
PhotoAlto/Milena Boniek via Getty Images

World Health Day this year focused on depression, and it was encouraging to see the day ignite a UK-wide debate. There we're many who rightly pointed out that ensuring a mentally healthy future starts with our nation's young people. There were also many who highlighted the costs of treating depression and other mental health conditions.

While we shouldn't reduce an issue so fundamental to the nation's future to a question of economics, if we're ever to move the conversation beyond costs, we must understand that the cost of not acting early is much higher. Demonstrably so, in fact, the cost of not intervening early is estimated to be around £17billion. When we wait until people reach crisis point before stepping in with support, problems tend to be much more complex, established and hard to treat.

We're missing too many opportunities to be there for people when the first symptoms of mental health problems present, and for many, this first happens in childhood. One of the most authoritative studies to date on the prevalence of mental health problems estimates that 50% of adult mental health problems were established in childhood by the age of just 14.

This powerfully illustrates the need to be working more with schools to support young people, taking advantage of the touch-points we pass through in our lives where mental health problems could be recognised early and support offered.

We know that 1 in 10 children experience mental health problems and yet only one quarter of those receive any mental health support. That's around 3 children in each UK classroom, and yet when teachers are asked, most will tell you that they feel unequipped to respond to mental health problems and many say that they have been unable to secure support for young people when they have tried.

A survey by the National Association of Head Teachers questioned 1,115 school leaders across England and Wales and found that 22% of those who had tried to commission mental health support for a pupil had been unsuccessful. The clear majority of school leaders (93%) said that pupils bring more worries into school than they did five years ago, and 96% thought that children's abilities to learn are affected by the concerns they bring to the classroom.

What we are consistently seeing is an epidemic within the epidemic, crises that hold symbiotic relationships and fuel each other. Recently established links between depression and obesity demonstrate this. Obesity in adolescence may lead to depression in adulthood - and depression in adolescence may lead to obesity in adulthood. The links between child poverty and children's mental health problems share a similar relationship.

When so many of the different challenges facing children and young people intersect with mental health, there are no easy answers. If we're going to rise to what is arguably the definitive challenge of our time, we will need a cross-sector, whole society approach to tackling it.

Schools must be equipped with the knowledge and skills to identify problems early on, ensuring that all teachers are trained in mental health and that support is readily available within the communities for them to signpost young people to. Better access to community counsellors and CAMHS will be needed, and we will also need to bring mental health properly into the curriculum. In 2017, its shocking that it is not already.

When headteachers so clearly recognise the complexity of today's world and the added pressures this places on young people, it is time for Government to catch up. It is time to equip young people with the tools they need to understand their mental health and know how to protect and sustain it. Emotional literacy is key and for too long has been overlooked. It can help children to not only better understand themselves but also to spot signs in their friends/family and encourage them to get help. Starting with all young people can bring about the cultural shift we need to see, and it is crucial we include all young people, including those with Learning Disabilities, neurodevelopmental disorders, and acquired brain injuries.

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