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The need for a children’s mental health strategy isn’t new – but it is more vital than ever

The need for a children’s mental health strategy isn’t new – but it is more vital than ever
4 min read

A new Mental Health Act placing children and young people for the first time at the heart of legislation would be a fitting memorial for this pandemic.

Loneliness, isolation and working from home have undoubtedly challenged the state of our mental health in the last 12 months. However, the impact is almost immeasurable to children and young people who have had their development altered significantly.

I recently met with the education secretary and the mental health minister, to highlight the need for a children’s mental health strategy, as rates of probable mental disorder amongst young people have been on the rise since 2017, with one in six children being identified as having a probable mental disorder. The pandemic will likely exacerbate this trend.

Yet, a BBC ‘File on 4’ investigation has found that over the past six years, the rate of hospital admissions for 9-12 year olds because of self-harming has doubled. An average of 10 children are hospitalised per week and the National Association of Head Teachers and the Royal Colleges of Emergency Medicine and GPs are calling for primary school teachers to be trained in helping to recognise “at risk” pupils.

Days before her departure, outgoing Children’s Commissioner for England Anne Longfield advocated for a counsellor in every school to address children’s mental health issues. The devolved nations agree, saying that the mental health of children and young people is now an urgent priority for government. Some experts have even predicted that Covid-19 will leave a new and shocking legacy – a pandemic in mental illness, with children and young people “in the frontline”.

Yet this is not “news”. Neither is this a novel corollary of Covid-19. What the pandemic has done is to highlight (as in other areas of provision) glaring inadequacies. 

In this case, alarm bells sounded in 2017 when former Prime Minister Theresa May pledged to correct the “burning injustices” faced by children suffering from mental illness.

Then-health secretary Jeremy Hunt introduced the green paper ‘Transforming Children and Young People’s Mental Health Provision’ prioritising a new cross-departmental approach and proposing pilots for early stages and preventative strategies within schools rather than deluging Child and Adolescent Mental Heath Services (CAMHS) with referrals that could have been addressed long before clinical intervention.

As things stand, a gap will continue to be perpetuated between the initial worries of a concerned parent or teacher and a full-blown CAMHS referral

Measures to improve conditions around detention and confinement for adults, BAME groups of people and children are to be welcomed, but in terms of the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people, the White Paper represents a “once in a generation” missed opportunity.

But there is still time to place children and young people at the heart of new legislation. 

The 2017 green paper focused on “the right help in the right setting”, prioritising early intervention, school-based therapy and support. As things stand, a gap will continue to be perpetuated between the initial worries of a concerned parent or teacher and a full-blown CAMHS referral. The crucial intermediary stage – where services of trained teaching staff, on-site play therapists and counsellors can make a difference and avert a full-scale inpatient stay – is absent. 

When introducing the new white paper, Matt Hancock said: “We must bring the Mental Health Act into the 21st century,” requesting “as many views as possible before we bring forward a new Mental Health Bill.”

Everybody who cares about the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people must respond to that call. 

A new Mental Health Act placing children and young people for the first time at the heart of legislation would be a fitting memorial for this pandemic.

That’s why I’m calling for a children’s mental health strategy. It is a “once in a generation” chance and the least we owe to future generations – when Covid-19 is only history.

 

Dr Lisa Cameron is the SNP MP for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow and mental health spokesperson.

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