Rob Halfon: ‘Failing a generation’ - why the Government’s proposals on children’s mental health lacks ambition
The Green Paper on children’s mental health will leave hundreds of thousands of young people without the help they need, writes Rob Halfon
In January 2017, the Prime Minister announced a package of measures to transform mental health support. She referred to mental illness as a “hidden injustice in our country” and announced that a Green Paper would be produced on children and young people’s mental health.
The previous Education and Health Committees decided to launch an inquiry into the role of education in children and young people’s mental health to influence the Green Paper. Their report was published just before the General Election.
In December 2017, the strategy was finally published with a promise that it would transform children and young people’s mental health provision. It featured three key elements: incentivising schools and colleges to identify a Designated Senior Lead for Mental Health; the creation and funding of new Mental Health Support Teams; and trialling a four-week waiting time for access to specialist NHS children and young people’s mental health services.
Following the publication of the Green Paper, the Education and Health and Social Care Committees launched a second joint inquiry. Our report was published on 9 May. Our inquiry welcomed the publication of the Green Paper and scrutinised the Government’s proposals.
We were disappointed. Children and young people are facing a mental health crisis and we were left with the distinct impression that the strategy lacked ambition. The scope doesn’t take certain vulnerable groups into account, the proposals put more pressure on the teaching workforce without sufficient resources and the timetable for implementation ignores hundreds of thousands of children over the next few years.
Despite the confident assertion that the strategy would be transformative, we were told that the Government was simply tinkering at the edges.
Social justice is one of the two themes of the Education Committee, with the other being productivity. Our Committee is shining a light on injustice to enable all children and young people to climb the educational ladder of opportunity. With that in mind, we were particularly disappointed to see the absence of a joined-up approach with other Government initiatives. The Green Paper misses out those from socially disadvantaged backgrounds as a key vulnerable group.
It is an age-old saying that prevention is better than cure. But the Government has not placed enough of an emphasis on strategies for prevention and dealing with some of the root causes of mental health problems. We cannot eradicate mental health problems through prevention altogether, but we can make a substantial contribution and could stop countless young people from having to deal with mental ill health later on down the line.
Two of the leading issues that came up in our inquiry were exam pressure and social media. In a discussion forum we held in Westminster, young people told us that high-stakes exams caused a considerable amount of pressure and could adversely affect their mental health. The minister’s attempts to reassure us that the recent exam reforms hadn’t made anything worse did not persuade us. We recommended that the Government should gather more evidence on the impact of exam pressure on young people’s mental health.
Many concerns were raised about the effects of social media on mental health, but we don’t really know the full impact yet. Young people told us about both positive and negative impacts of social media on their mental health. It is positive that there are forthcoming reports from the Government in partnership with social media and digital sector companies, the Chief Medical Officer and another parliamentary select committee. Young people also need social media education to be part of compulsory PSHE.
We called our report ‘failing a generation’. The proposals, and particularly the timescales for implementation of the proposals, will leave hundreds of thousands of young people without the help they need. We look forward to the Government’s response to our report and to crucial changes being made to their proposals to ensure that we are not neglecting young people when they need help the most.
Rob Halfon is Conservative MP for Harlow and chair of the Education select committee