Today’s report by the Joint Education and Health Select Committee has dealt a hammer blow to the Government’s credibility on ensuring that children and young people get timely mental health treatment.
The Committee has rightly criticised the Government’s proposals to improve mental health support for children and young people as unambitious, giving help to only a fifth of children by 2022/23 and merely heaping pressure on thinly-stretched schools and existing mental health services.
Whatever the Committee’s criticisms of the Government’s plans, a Green Paper will not solve the problems that children and young people with mental health conditions are facing right now.
We know how crucial it is to tackle early mental ill health among young people: 50% of mental health problems are established by age 14 and 75% by age 24.
But the reality is that, currently, children and young people are struggling to get the right treatment at the time they need it, potentially leading to the worsening of their conditions.
According to the charity Young Minds, Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) are turning away nearly a quarter of the children referred to them for treatment by concerned parents, GPs, teachers and others. Meanwhile, the average maximum waiting time for a first appointment with CAMHS is nearly nine months, and 16 months until the start of treatment.
This year, a major Care Quality Commission report into children and young people’s services has also painted a worrying picture of mental health provision, the backdrop of which has been eight years of underfunding.
It uncovered the patchy quality of key mental health services for many children and young people.
According to the CQC report, 35% of specialist inpatient wards for children and 42% of specialist community health services were not meeting standards of safe care.
It also revealed that some children were facing high thresholds to be referred to services. Such was the pressure of funding shortfalls that some GPs suggested that children ‘pretend’ their mental health was worse than it was in order to be referred for treatment.
Most troublingly of all, the report found that there were long waits to access services. Scandalously, the reports found that some children were waiting as long as eighteen months to get treatment.
The CQC’s worrying findings have been echoed by the charity Barnardo’s, who said that lack of resources meant that some children are reaching the point of suicide before they get any help. Financial belt-tightening by local authorities and NHS cannot go on, they said.
Labour would take a different approach. Whereas the Tories want to put in place a system of support teams, at the last election we pledged to ensure that access to a counselling service will be made available for all children in secondary schools and funding to support NHS services will be increased.
Labour is working to develop our own plans, building on the pledges we made in our 2017 manifesto.
Just 0.7% of the NHS budget currently goes into children’s mental health services and, according to the Children’s Commissioner, Anne Longfield, there remain major disparities between spending on children and adults. So we will put real investment at the heart of our plans by increasing the proportion of the mental health budget spent on children and young people.
And we will enshrine prevention in our approach to children and young people’s mental health by looking at how we can address some of the risk factors associated with the development of mental health conditions, such as childhood adversity and trauma.
Tinkering around the edges, as the Government is doing, will not tackle the problems children and young people face.
That is why Labour will take a comprehensive approach to make sure that children can get the support they need, when they need it.
Barbara Keeley is the shadow minister for mental health and Labour MP for Worsley and Eccles South