I know all too well how hard childhood mental health struggles can be
The pandemic is having an impact on the mental health of children and young people | Adobe Stock
The government will do all it can to help the young, with early intervention and specialist care for the young people who need it most
There was a period in my teenage years when I struggled with eating. I started to diet aged 15, a decision I made with my sister after Christmas – she stopped, sensibly, within a few weeks but I carried on, munching apples and little else, until I weighed just five-and-a-half stone.
I proudly wore my new size six, lime green jeans, but I didn’t recognise how sick I had become.
I have been overwhelmed by the response to telling my story. Opening up was not a decision I took lightly. I chose to speak out because I have heard so many stories of the increase in people seeking help with anorexia and other eating disorders during the pandemic. I hoped that by telling my own story I could give some hope to others and encourage people to seek help and support. I’ve received so many messages since doing so – from parents worried about their children, from former sufferers, from people who have seen loved ones go through similar and, like me, want to help end the judgement that, in the past, might have followed an admission of a mental health disorder.
While the pandemic continues to affect so many people in our country, our commitment to improve mental health support for all remains firm
Experts on anorexia explain how the illness is often about an individual seeking control where life seems to be uncontrollable. My own early teenage years were turbulent. My father died just before I started secondary school. I was attending a London day school and living with family friends and relatives while my mother was holding down her job as a doctor in Northern Ireland.
Throughout this uncertainty, and confusion, the one thing I could control was the apple diet.
I was lucky and with the help of family, friends and others, I started to eat again. I know not everyone has the loving family and strong support system that got me back on track.
Mental health is a priority for this government. As children’s minister, I am enormously proud of a project we set up which provides funding to councils so they can offer training and advice from mental health experts to schools and colleges on how best to support their pupils and staff at this uncertain time. More than 80% of councils in England have told us they are delivering this training.
The wellbeing elements of our RHSE curriculum have also been rolled out and cover healthy eating – including the characteristics of a poor diet and the risks associated with unhealthy eating.
Community and crisis mental health services have adapted by using digital and face-to-face appointments where they can, while NHS providers have also established all-age 24/7 mental health helplines. An additional £500m this year will help the NHS further reduce waiting times for mental health services – building on the latest figures which show that by the end of 2020/21 95% of children with urgent cases of eating disorder will receive treatment within one week.
This is on top of the long-term commitments we have already made to improve mental health – including the NHS Long Term Plan, which will enable two million more people to access mental health services by 2023/24. Our joint green paper delivery programme is on track, with new mental health support teams for schools and colleges training and more senior mental health leads in schools and colleges. Approaches to faster access to NHS specialist support are also being tested.
While the pandemic continues to affect so many people in our country, our commitment to improve mental health support for all remains firm, especially with early intervention and specialist care for the young people who need it most.
I know only too well how life-changing this can be.
Vicky Ford is Conservative MP for Chelmsford and children’s minister