What can be done to protect the mental health of children and young people? Young NCB member Jack Welch reflects on the ‘Growing Up Happy’ conference.
In recent years, there have been few issues on the child health agenda as hotly debated as that of mental health and wellbeing and you don’t have to look far to find an array of reports and policy recommendations on how services can be bettered for those in the system. At the beginning of November, I joined clinicians, researchers and other voluntary sector delegates who came together at the UCL Children’s Policy Research Unit (CPRU) conference on the theme of ‘Growing Up Happy’.
Throughout the day, we covered topics including resilience, self-harm and effective coping strategies, and a common trend emerged: that early intervention not only saves lives by preventing a crisis for a young person, but also saves money for government. This in itself should be a big incentive.
Professor Lord Richard Layard, Director of the Wellbeing Programme at the London School of Economics, highlighted that just 25% of children who need specialist help actually receive it. Quite rightly, he stated, many of us feel ‘outraged’ by the second-class support for mental health in recent years, rather than it being on parity with other areas of health. More school-based support was recommended, but questions of whether the stigma associated with seeking support could be a barrier was also raised. It should be noted that the Department of Health, in their Future in Mind report, have stated their intention to invest at least £150 million in mental health services for young people over this term of government.
While states of anxiety of anxiety and depression are deep concerns for those who have an interest in mental health, so are self-harm and eating disorders. Cases of Anorexia have increased dramatically and within the last year alone 200 more people with this diagnosis were admitted into hospital. A powerful film from the charity Fixers was shown as an example of the extent of waiting times and failure by doctors to take action more quickly.
Throughout the conference, films that Young NCB produced were shown to spark discussion, exploring happiness in general and the role of society and institutions in improving mental health. For the final part of the afternoon, I took part in a panel discussion of policy actions which could improve care. Joined by representatives from Great Ormond Street Hospital, YoungMinds and the Royal College of Psychiatrists, I spoke of the need for more joined-up communications between counsellors in schools and CAMHS services. Too often, the support is fragmented and can end up with young people having to repeatedly give information about themselves to different specialists as they seek help.
Greater clinical support and greater awareness amongst teaching staff in schools could lead to better support being available to students, particularly in high stress periods around exams. This could also end the high cycle of DNAs (Did Not Appear) that are often the result of excessive waiting times. We also need to do more for the most vulnerable and those who have learning disabilities as these are often the people who suffer most. A lack of support can lead to the tragedy of suicide, and delegates shared moving examples of friends and colleagues who had taken their lives. Could they have been helped if proper action had been taken by mental health services?
After a successful and passionate discussion to close the conference, I am very confident NCB will continue to campaign for further steps to be taken so that mental health in young people will be an equal priority in services across institutions and communities.