Luciana Berger: We need a new approach to young people’s mental health

Posted On: 
3rd February 2017

Young people are challenging the stigma around mental health. But this progress in society has not been matched by improvements in provision

One in every 10 children aged 5-16 has a diagnosable mental health problem
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Today’s young people face a range of anxieties and pressures like never before. They confront a toxic mix of a competitive, precarious labour market, a hostile housing market, mounting student debts, social media worries and a country teetering on the brink of Brexit.

Far from being ‘snowflakes’, the young people I meet are tough, resilient and realistic, because this is what their world demands.

This generation will benefit from a greater awareness of mental health – quite the contrast to the experiences of their grandparents, and even their parents.

In previous generations, mental illness in young people was misdiagnosed, ignored, or put down to ‘bad behaviour’. Young people were often subject to mistreatment, if they got any support at all, and their illness was a taboo subject, hidden away by families and society.

Today, the landscape is beginning to change. We are much more open about the issues surrounding mental health, thanks to pioneering campaigners and public figures who speak openly, challenging stigma and prejudice.

We have become much more literate about mental illness. Stigma still persists, but young people are more willing to talk about their own mental health, with friends, work colleagues and their families.

But this progress within society has not been accompanied by improvements in provision for young people. Child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) are a scandal. Over the past parliament, there was a £600m shortfall in NHS mental health funding – an 8% cut on the coalition’s watch.

And that’s not even taking into account the substantial cuts to our children’s centres, school nurses, youth services, educational psychologists and other support networks which play a vital role in young people’s wellbeing. Mental health professionals also report an increase in both the prevalence and acuity of mental health conditions in our children and teens.

Clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) are failing to sufficiently fund mental health services for young people. According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists there are 52 CCGs in England that are allocating less than 5% of their total mental health budget to children, while a survey revealed that over 70% of its members specialising in CAMHS said their own service was inadequate or very inadequate. And yet one in every 10 children aged 5-16 years has a diagnosable mental health problem and children under 18 make up a fifth of our population.

The former prime minister, David Cameron, announced extra funding for young people’s mental health, including a renewed focus on tackling eating disorders. That was welcome, but did not go far enough. The government’s own mental health taskforce says that our mental health services will need an extra £1bn by 2020.

We need to transform our approach, with a real focus on prevention and early intervention. CAHMS need to be able to offer treatment in a timely manner, close to home, and provide adequate acute care in the most urgent cases. This means that every CCG must ringfence the money pledged and stop raiding mental health budgets to shore up other parts of the NHS.

But resources are only the start. We need more funding into research, and more help available in schools and communities. We need to cultivate our understanding of how different groups are disproportionally affected by certain conditions.

We know that young men are more likely to die by suicide, and that it’s more common for young women to be admitted to hospital to be treated for self-harm and eating disorders than young men. We need services which are responsive and tailored, and as complex as the eight million 15-24 year olds who live in the UK.

We need to invest in nurturing the mental health of our young people, so that the next generation is ready for the challenges ahead. 

Luciana Berger is Labour MP for Liverpool Wavertree and president of the Labour Campaign for Mental Health