We Need To Understand Why So Many Children Are Unhappy

With such a rapid rise in demand for mental health services, it’s urgent we understand the causes of poor mental health
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A generation of children are calling for help with their mental health.

There’s been a dramatic increase in self-harm – 19,000 children were admitted to hospital last year after hurting themselves, a 14% rise over three years. More and more young people tell us they feel anxious, depressed and have low self-esteem. It’s thought that as many as one in ten children has a diagnosable mental health condition and referrals to specialist treatment have gone up 44% in the last three years. But some children are being turned away because they don’t meet the threshold for treatment, and I’ve heard shocking stories like a girl being told she “wasn’t thin enough for eating disorder services.”

Mental health problems in childhood left untreated can lead to a lifetime of mental illness. Children with poor mental health not only do worse in school, they go on to have lower incomes, shorter lives and are more likely to be victims or perpetrators of crime. Given the toll this can take on individuals and on society, we shouldn’t wait until children reach crisis point to give them the help they need.

The Government has rightly recognised that urgent action is needed, and has brought the Departments of Health and Education together to work on improving children and young people’s mental health. Spending on Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services is increasing by £1.4billion over the next five years. New waiting time standards are being introduced so that children won’t have to wait more than four weeks before seeing a specialist. And every school will have someone who children know they can go to if they need help.

But what about children who aren’t in school? Those who’ve been excluded or withdrawn from school, perhaps because of bullying, are among the most vulnerable. And sadly, we know that by the time a child starts school, some have already gone through multiple adverse experiences which put them at risk of mental illness. So we need help for under 5s and their families as well.

“We need to get to the root of the problem. We need to understand what is causing so many children to feel depressed and anxious”

And we need to get to the root of the problem. We need to understand what is causing so many children to feel depressed and anxious – and use this knowledge to prevent children from becoming ill in the first place.

We need to understand what it is about Britain today that is making children unhappy. We need to understand the new and emerging risks of social media and cyberbullying. We need to understand how childhood experiences, like domestic abuse or living with a parent with drug and alcohol can effect a child’s mental health, and intervene when we recognise a child is going through them. And we need to understand that other factors like family breakdown, bereavement, or living with parents who fight all the time can also have an impact on children’s mental health. Finally, we need to know what’s different for the children who go through those experiences yet don’t emerge with a mental health problem - so we can see what went right and how to replicate it.

There’s no question about the need to boost mental health services so they can treat more Children and Young People. And there needs to be more on offer for families before they reach crisis point. Good progress is being made: the mental health workforce is set to expand, with 2,000 more nurses, therapists and consultants by 2020-21. We’re also training more doctors, with five new medical schools opening – including one in my patch in Kent.

But with such a rapid rise in demand for mental health services, it’s just as urgent that we understand the causes of poor mental health and what can be done to prevent mental illness.

And while the coming together of Health and Education is a big step forward, what about the other services children encounter? We need greater awareness of children’s mental health in all public services and joined up working around children and their families.

Helen Whately is the Conservative MP for Faversham and Mid Kent


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