This World Mental Health Day we are focusing on the theme of young people and mental health in a changing world. Young people in Britain bear the brunt of the mental health crisis. At least one in ten children and young people has a diagnosable mental health condition, but of those, only one in three receives the NHS treatment they need.
The Education Policy Institute (EPI) reports this week that the number of referrals to specialist children’s mental health services has increased by 26% over the past five years, yet one in four referrals are turned away. That means over 55,000 young people are not getting the treatment they need. Waiting times are increasing. Around half of young people are waiting more than 18 weeks. Between 2005 and 2015 there was a 50% increase in young people’s admissions to hospital because of self-harm. So thousands of young people with a mental illness are not getting any treatment, and those that do, are waiting months. Yet astonishingly only 1% of total NHS spend, and just 10% of overall mental health spend, goes on mental health services for children and young people.
This iniquity fails to recognise the changing nature of the mental health challenge. Young people may be growing up in precarious social conditions including rented accommodation and parents with low-wage or insecure work. They may suffer from anti-social behaviour and crime. They are put under pressure from a relentless conveyer belt of exams, an uncertain jobs market, the weight of student debts, and a housing market which denies many the chance of an affordable home. This is a generation living under the stormy clouds of anxiety, stress, eating disorders, depression, addictions, and self-harm. Suicide remains the biggest cause of death amongst young men.
Many of the underlying factors in poor mental health are societal. Young people need the serenity that comes from a stable home, safe streets, regular income, opportunities for travel and study, affordable transport, and a real stake in the future. The cruel realities of austerity and Brexit mean that life is chaotic, expensive and the road ahead is littered with obstacles. Until we fix the deep-rooted problems of economic inequality, we cannot expect young people to experience the best childhood and adolescence. I support a ‘health in all policies’ approach which means no major decision should be taken without regard to its impact on the public’s physical and mental health. If enacted, it would mean that we prevent much ill-health before it starts.
We are living through a technological revolution which places new pressures on young people. This generation’s reliance on technology opens a world of knowledge and connections, but it can also have a dark side. Young people are confronted by cyberbullying, online pornography, unrealistic body images, and hate speech on social media. These things can damage their mental health.
Then we need to repair and rebuild our mental health services, so that they are world-class, available to all, and given the funding they need. That means a new generation of mental health professionals, well-rewarded, with a fulfilling career ahead of them. The Government’s recent Green Paper on young people’s mental health does little to put things right. Ministers’ modest proposals will take years, and do not even have the ambition to reach all young people until 2030. The much-vaunted commitment to ‘parity of esteem’ between physical and mental health remains as elusive as ever.
Today’s announcement that health minister Jackie Doyle-Price will now also have suicide prevention in her portfolio is welcome, but the reality is, this issue is about far more than tackling stigma. Sustained cuts to local and NHS services mean people cannot access the support they need, when they need it. This means thousands of people reach crisis point every year because of a lack of earlier intervention. The time for empty gestures is long past. Only ring-fenced investment in specialist services, community-based care and the mental health workforce can begin to address the current mental health crisis facing our children and young people.
This World Mental Health Day provides a platform to discuss young people’s mental health, here and around the world. But talk is cheap. We need action from ministers, not more warm words. If they are unable or unwilling to make the changes we need, they should make way for those who can.
Luciana Berger is the Labour MP for Liverpool Wavertree, and President of the Labour Campaign for Mental Health