One in 10 children and young people in the UK suffer with mental ill-health at some point. And far too often these children and young people are unable to receive the support they need and are failed by mental health services.
New research released at the end of last week by the Education Policy Institute revealed that more than a quarter of child referrals to children and young people’s mental health services in England last year were rejected.
Even when their referrals weren’t rejected, many children still had to wait an average of two months to begin treatment in 2019 – double the government’s four-week target. Birmingham Women’s and Children’s Hospital and Birmingham and Solihull NHS Trusts are two providers which rank as having some of the longest median waiting times for mental health treatment in England – 112 days and 87 days respectively.
Despite these appalling statistics, early indications suggest that mental health will not be a priority for Johnson’s government. The Queen’s speech saw only one reference to mental health, and even then, it was a reference to the Mental Health Act which, while important, is not sufficient. Instead, we need to use the standards we expect for physical health patient treatment as a template and apply them to mental health patients.
For all the talk of parity of esteem, the Conservatives have not delivered. The interconnectedness of services and policies means that slashing budgets in other areas removes safety nets for the most vulnerable in our society. Policy decisions feed into pressures in other areas; students excluded from school, for example, are 10 times more likely to suffer from mental health problems.
Successive Conservative governments have cut youth services by 73 per cent since 2010, with spending reaching its ‘lowest point in a generation’ according to YMCA figures. These cuts have forced youth centres to close and youth reoffending prevention programmes to end. Meanwhile the four-year benefit freeze, and punitive benefit cuts and policies, have pushed more families into poverty. These all play a part, directly and indirectly, in creating the challenging environment our young people grow up in.
With nearly 40 per cent of the population under-25, Birmingham is the youngest city in Europe. Yet it only has one early intervention counselling service for young people. There is simply no way that it can keep pace with demand.
At last count this one service had over 400 young people on its waiting list. That is more than 400 young people in desperate need of help, requiring urgent treatment and in most cases with nowhere else to turn. That is more than 400 young people who will have to wait months to see someone.
The counsellors are working at full capacity, often providing more hours than they are contracted for to try and abate their ever-increasing waiting times.
Can we be surprised that more and more young people are ending up in A&E with a mental health crisis when we neglect early intervention care?
These problems are not unique to Birmingham. Across the country, 75 per cent of mental health trusts do not have enough in their budget to look after the children and young people with mental health problems.
We need mental health services that are truly responsive to the complex conditions that our young people frequently present with and that recognise the vital role that social care and other related services can play in supporting an individual with mental health problems.
To be truly responsive we need to listen to young people when making decisions about the mental health services they use.
That is why I have helped set-up a young people’s mental health working group supported by Open Door Counselling in my constituency to look at the way mental health services in Birmingham are run.
Run by young people, for young people, this group will use their unique perspective to help shape services for the better. They will instruct CCGs and NHS trusts on what is working, and just as importantly, what is not. The working group will also inform my work in parliament; putting forward their lived experiences of the system.
On 10 October 2019, World Mental Health Day, we held the inaugural meeting of the working group. The feedback from the young people was remarkable.
They told us about the pressure from their peers. They told us that when there is support from schools, the lack of resources often meant that already overstretched teachers were also doing the job of a counsellor. Unsurprisingly, few felt comfortable speaking openly and honestly to people in positions of power who felt they would not listen to them.
Due to the reduced access to core public health services, schools are being forced to pick up the slack and teachers are doing their best despite often not having had the appropriate training or resources. A survey of schools which I conducted in my constituency earlier this year revealed that more than 90 per cent have seen an increase in staff and students suffering from mental health problems.
This is clearly not a model that works for anyone so how can we expect schools to cope without adequate support?
When we launched the working group in Birmingham, it was inspiring to hear young people talk so openly and honestly and able to articulate so clearly the daily problems they, and their peers, face. This is just the beginning of a dialogue which will evolve and grow, and I hope that others will be inspired to replicate this initiative around the country.
Young people have a voice – and we should be listening.