Mental health

Children’s mental health can’t wait for a new government

The crisis at the top of government can't be a distraction from a crisis in children's mental health, writes Catherine Roche. We need consensus and action

The crisis at the top of government can't be a distraction from a crisis in children's mental health, writes Catherine Roche. We need consensus and action

14 Jul 2022, 5:00

Against the backdrop of two years of Covid, war breaking out in Europe and a cost-of-living crisis putting families under immense pressure, it’s perhaps not surprising that there has been an upsurge in children’s mental health issues.

Now, with the disarray in government and a merry-go-round of ministers, we run the risk that supporting and funding children’s mental health is pushed to the side-lines. This can’t be allowed to happen. 

The department for health and social care consultation on priorities for mental health and wellbeing strategy for the next ten years closed this week. Alongside other agencies with expertise in the delivery of services on the ground, we have submitted evidence and proposals for what is needed in practice.

But as we enter the summer holidays, the government must stick to its commitments to our young people. Their needs are already greater than ever, and by the end of six weeks away from teachers and friends could be even greater still come the autumn term.

The data speaks for itself. We are seeing a sharp increase in diagnosable mental health conditions among children and young people. These now affect one in six children – or five in every classroom. Some 400,000 are being treated monthly according to the NHS. Worryingly, 50 per cent of all mental health issues first develop by the age of 14.

As a charity delivering frontline mental health support in schools across the UK, we know this is solvable. Good mental health is not something that just happens. It needs to be nurtured. We work in partnership with 450 schools and have been involved in child mental health support work for over 27 years. We know that early intervention and a whole-school approach can turn the tide and help avoid issues escalating into adulthood.

Early intervention and a whole-school approach can turn the tide

School is about learning a whole range of life skills, not just academic attainment. A whole-school approach means that everyone – from the headteacher to the catering staff and including parents and carers – must be alive to that fact and committed to supporting children’s wellbeing and emotional development as well as their curricular progress.

This approach must be mirrored across government. Incoming ministers across all departments – but especially in health and education – must also be committed to working together and prioritising actions that will improve children’s wellbeing. Personalities and politics are part and parcel of leadership contests, but this is one issue where there should be consensus if we are to achieve lasting change. 

So whatever happens next, it is essential that the government commits to its plans. We must see recruitment bolstered so that every school has access to a dedicated mental health resource if we are to have a chance of curbing this worrying trend. It’s a ten-year plan, but putting it into action must start now.

And if it’s cost implications that ministers are concerned about, then we can reassure them; We know that every pound invested in our work in primary schools generates a return of £8 of benefits to society. And we are not alone in providing such support.  

Change is inevitable and bad things happen, but building a generation who can flourish in spite of everything life throws at them requires us to model the attitudes that make that most likely: consensus-building, and a commitment to helping the most vulnerable. That means supporting leaders, financially and practically, to embed wellbeing across all parts of the school – in every school.

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