Young people today are experiencing increased pressures that are contributing to their mental ill-health. The pervasiveness of social media in their lives leaves no respite from their anxieties. Most adult mental health conditions start in childhood, and without proper treatment, there is a danger that conditions will worsen and continue into adulthood.
I am proud to be an MP in the youngest city in Europe, with 40% of Birmingham’s population aged under 25. I am proud of our young people who face and overcome adversity on a daily basis. I am proud of the staff who care for our young people when they are at their most vulnerable. However, in their recent review, the Care Quality Commission (CQC) declared the specialist community mental health services for children and young people in Birmingham inadequate.
Birmingham Women’s and Children’s NHS Foundation Trust is the lead provider of Forward Thinking Birmingham (FTB), supplying mental health services for children, young people, and young adults up to the age of 25 in Birmingham. The CQC report makes clear that there are serious concerns about the quality of care that patients are receiving from them.
The challenges are clear given services are being squeezed. Demand for mental health services is growing, young people are presenting with complex conditions, and funding is being cut. On top of this, the government fails to recognise the interconnectedness of services, and that cuts to social care will hit the most vulnerable in our society hardest when other safety nets are removed.
Young people feel that many of the community mental health services exist simply to signpost them to other providers. Referrals which cause unnecessary delays to treatment at a time when they desperately need continuity of care.
One counselling service, funded by FTB, that provides valuable support to young people in my constituency and across the city, has seen complex mental health referrals increase and waiting lists for therapy climb to 500 young people. This is because of a combination of high demand and shrinking resources. To keep pace with demand they currently supplement NHS provision with six additional unfunded hours per week, and the additional hours spent with these young people leads to ever-increasing waiting times. This is compounded further if they need to be referred onward for diagnosis. Many on the waiting list require urgent treatment, yet it may be a month or more before many of them will be seen, despite it being an early intervention service.
Early intervention is becoming increasingly important. The Mental Health Foundation has reported that more than three in five young people who experience a mental health problem have not received appropriate intervention at a sufficiently early age. An immediate concern is that those who cannot access early intervention services and who suffer an exacerbation of symptoms, and those with more severe symptoms who cannot access higher-tier care, will invariably present at the A&E of Acute Hospitals.
Whilst official data does not exist, we know the experience of Birmingham’s service users is not unique. The Education Policy Institute sought national data directly from child and adolescent service providers. They found that the average waiting time for an assessment was around 30 days, and the average waiting time for treatment was over 50 days.
The government has made a conscious decision to only collect waiting list data for a minority of mental health services in adults and children. But why is there a lack of transparency? The submission of information on waiting times via a centralised collection must be mandated if we are to understand the full extent of the problem.
If the government is committed to genuine parity of esteem, then at the very least they need to collect data for waiting list numbers, mental health spending, and the number of service users. How else can we scrutinise these services.
Another way to provide greater transparency is to protect mental health spending. Currently, each local NHS commissioner decides how much of their funding allocation they want to spend on it, which can accentuate local disparities. To tackle this issue, Labour is calling for mental health funding to be ring-fenced, a call I made to the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, recently in parliament.
We must avoid making the situation worse for young people at a time when they are at their most vulnerable. I will continue to fight for the improvement of mental health provision for young people in Birmingham. But in order to succeed, we must listen to, and be led by, those with lived experience.
Preet Kaur Gill is the Member of Parliament for Birmingham, Edgbaston, and a shadow international development minister
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