The government is tinkering around the edges of the mental health crisis facing young people
We need to ringfence funding, prioritise early intervention and look outside the health system to tackle the problem, says Barbara Keeley
More children are developing mental health conditions than ever before, but this increase in the prevalence of mental ill-health comes at a time when accessing services has never been harder for many children.
The current picture of mental health provision is one of stretched services, long waiting lists, and eligibility criteria which set thresholds so high that many children who need help miss out on the support they need. Our country’s mental health services need to improve dramatically if we are to give every child the support they need.
Years of cuts means that only one in three children and young people are able to access crucial mental health treatment. In some cases, children are waiting as long as 18 months to be seen by a mental health professional.
This lack of support is leading to more children in mental health crisis – crises that could be prevented if children received better support earlier.
A Labour government will begin by addressing the funding crisis. Children’s mental health services account for only 6% of total spending on mental health – representing less than 1% of the total NHS mental health budget. This is too low for such a crucial issue.
Labour will put real investment at the heart of our plans for mental health by increasing the proportion of the mental health budget spent on services for children and young people. We will also ringfence mental health budgets to ensure that funding reaches the frontline of services and doesn’t get siphoned off for other NHS priorities.
'Children are waiting as long as 18 months to be seen by a mental health professional'
Funding children’s mental health services properly will mean that more children and young people will be able to access the support they need, when they need it. The fight for parity between mental and physical health funding is making progress, but for children’s mental health there is still so much work to do.
Early intervention is key in mental health. Services need to be designed to provide support as soon as someone demonstrates the first signs of mental ill-health. If mental health problems are detected early, children can be supported with their mental health problems before these become more serious.
At the last election, Labour promised to extend counselling services in schools, giving every secondary school access to a counsellor. Ensuring there is a counsellor available in school would mean supporting young people at an earlier stage. This is already common practice in Wales, where 11,000 young people access a school counsellor every year – meaning only one in seven of them require further support from child and adolescent mental health services.
Mental health doesn’t exist in a vacuum and we know that many mental health problems could be prevented with early intervention. But as budgets for council services and public health are cut even further, this is happening less and less frequently.
Changing this will mean investing in our schools, so that children get the support they need from teachers and staff. It will mean ensuring that families have stable homes, so that social connections are not continually uprooted. It will mean supporting the wellbeing of young people, not cutting services like Sure Start.
Good mental health also needs to be promoted and supported in communities and online. That’s why Labour is also looking outside the health system to tackle mental ill-health.
Labour has proposed a real duty of care for social media companies to protect young people from online harms. We will also introduce fines for companies that fail to protect their youngest and most vulnerable users.
The government’s proposals are little more than tinkering around the edges of the mental health problems children and young people face. Labour would take the action which is needed. We would prioritise prevention to ensure that young people’s mental health problems do not escalate to more serious levels, while funding services to make sure that every child can get the vital support they need.
Barbara Keeley is Labour MP for Worsley and Eccles South and shadow minister for mental health and social care
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.