Mental health ‘black hole’ is blighting young lives and damaging families with anxiety, depression and anxiety | Letters from Denise Kuo and Margot Latham-Smith, Siân Phillips and Caroline Lucas MP Read more
Debate has been raging about what mental health services – if any – are failing our children. These are complex and difficult issues, but the vast majority of services for children and young people are actually very good and, on the whole, working well. The NHS, like our families, is facing complex pressures that have caused anxiety, which is currently in full effect for many people trying to get help to deal with emotional distress and, ultimately, feelings of sadness and despair. I hope that our discussion on the state of our mental health services will be part of that ongoing debate.
But the charities working in the mental health services sector know that they will not have the luxury of delay when it comes to dealing with the crisis.
The report to Parliament by the charity Mind and Pressure on Mental Health 2015 shows a major decline in both how families regard mental health services and how mentally distressed children and young people themselves rate their treatment. Not long ago, the UK had a very high rate of teenage suicide, but that has been largely reversed. Our rankings for depression have all gone up. And while the suicide rate for men has actually fallen, it’s soaring among women. We have yet to put a figure on the deaths of children and young people who die by taking their own lives, but anecdotally it is likely to be very high. According to the Mind and Pressure on Mental Health report, anxiety and depression can already be experienced by 90% of children and young people in England, and these experiences will be raised by the tough world we now live in.
These are difficult times, and health services are under increased pressure. But as our services face financial pressures and mental health is dealt with as a non-duplicable social problem, the fact that so many children are not having access to mental health services is a scandal. Many parents are learning that their children do not have mental health needs that can be effectively met in person, a gap in our services for which adults all too often used to be treated as adults, too. The fact that children of all ages can get mental health needs assessed but not treated in a practical way also hurts the whole family, and is damaging to young people’s lives.
I am furious to hear some parents of children with mental health problems citing the budget cuts to children’s mental health services, because they are absolutely in the wrong frame of mind. No child or young person should be left without treatment; no parent should fear for their child’s mental health and wellbeing. With more adult services going down and children’s services being in particularly dire need of investment, there has never been a more urgent need for a serious look at the shortcomings of our mental health service, as well as for more investment in preventive services. We need to invest, not in gimmicks, but in more really effective approaches.
Some parents, rightly, blame the funding crisis in our children’s mental health services and it is understandable, but I believe that pressure on them now is quite a political choice. The international Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights states that governments must ensure that economic, social and cultural needs of its citizens are met, and that they are involved in decisions affecting them. I call on my political colleagues to fulfil the fundamental duty of governments to their citizens and to act on this.
All political parties need to do more to give support to young people living with mental health problems and ensure there is proper mental health funding. But it is also imperative that the future of our child and adolescent mental health services is discussed in the context of wider inequalities.
We are the next generation. The problems that we face now are only likely to get worse. Now is the time to give young people’s voices a bigger and more positive role in the debate about our health services. This is the only way that we will deliver a better health service for everyone.
• Sue Berelowitz is chief executive of the Children’s Society