Black young people, education, and mental health support
Earlier this year, a mum in my constituency got in touch.
Her daughter had been waiting 16 months for a mental health assessment. She’d been told she may need to wait for another year still.
Her daughter is only seven. She should be enjoying school, playdates, parties and playgrounds. Instead, her mum told me, “she isn’t really living: just existing.” She and thousands of other children and young people are suffering because our children’s mental health services can’t keep up.
Whilst so many families experienced trauma and bereavement during the Covid-19 pandemic, the mental health impact of the last few years must also not be ignored.
Five years ago, one in nine children and young people had a probable mental health disorder. Last year, it was one in six. The level of mental health support need among young people is at a record high.
For Black young people in particular, the impact on their mental health has never been more evident. As with Covid-19 deaths, the mental health crisis has disproportionately harmed Black people. Black men are more likely to have experienced a psychotic disorder in the last year than White men. Black people are four times more likely to be detained under the Mental Health Act than White people. This cannot continue.
As with Covid-19 deaths, the mental health crisis has disproportionately harmed Black people
All the while, schools are often picking up the slack. I’ve witnessed first-hand a seven-year-old being physically restrained in a classroom because their mental ill health had made them a danger to other children. They were on a Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service waiting list, and their mother was at her wits’ end. Staff say the situation is unsustainable, as they pick up the slack for overstretched services elsewhere.
When surveyed by leading mental health charity YoungMinds, more than eight in 10 young people aged 16 to 18 felt that the curriculum, assessment and academic pressure were negatively impacting their mental health. For those struggling to catch up after the pandemic, often because they were most impacted, this intense focus on attainment at all costs can backfire.
Liberal Democrats are calling for a dedicated, qualified mental health professional in every school, who can provide the talking therapies or small group support to help children look after their mental health in ways that stop the situation from worsening. These professionals need meaningful connections with the communities they work in so that they can provide culturally appropriate care.
Ministers also say they want to focus more on behaviour, yet zero-tolerance approaches risk schools excluding disruptive children rather than pausing to understand and address the reasons why they are misbehaving in class. Before the pandemic, Black Caribbean pupils were more than twice as likely to be permanently excluded than their white peers. The government’s own official guidance says that exclusion should always be a last resort: it’s time that was always the case.
We also desperately need action to meet the four-week waiting time target for referrals to children’s specialist mental health services. Without a roadmap to address the current waiting lists – including the investment and staff increases required to make the target feasible – the government is on course to leave hundreds of thousands of young people waiting for help, with those most in need bearing the brunt.
The government’s “Plan for Patients” promised more mental health support for pupils and expanded children’s mental health services. But we’ve seen no details, no funding and no commitments beyond vague platitudes. It’s as if ministers have simply forgotten about the sheer toll of the last two years.
With the Prime Minister gone, her successor must get a grip of the crisis at hand, particularly for young Black people who are the most likely to miss out on support. I only hope that they will grasp it.
Munira Wilson MP is the Liberal Democrats’ spokesperson for education, children and young people
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.