Neglect of children’s emotional wellbeing is a national scandal

This article was first published by The Times Red Box on 10th January 2017. 

Norman Lamb, Liberal Democrat MP for North Norfolk and former Minister of State for Care & Support

For all the talk of giving young people the best possible start in life, the truth is that this country hasn’t paid enough attention to children’s mental health. The Prime Minister's speech today was, in many respects, welcome. However, with so much evidence of a serious shortfall in the extra investment promised, it felt like a rather puny response to a burning injustice.

An estimated 1 in 10 children suffer from a diagnosable mental health problem – roughly three pupils in every school class.  But too many of these children do not get the effective and timely support they need.  The consequences are often lifelong, continuing into adulthood and affecting everything from mental wellbeing to physical health, employment prospects to relationships.

When we know that the majority of mental illness starts before the age of 18, prevention and early intervention in childhood is essential. Schools have a crucial role to play in promoting positive mental health – not only by building emotional resilience and equipping children to cope with life’s challenges, but also by providing early support when times get tough to prevent any problems from getting worse.

Counselling is an important evidence-based approach to supporting mental health, and Department for Education guidance sets an expectation that this should be made available in all schools. Sadly, however, this is not the case. School-based counselling is not a statutory requirement in England and the provision and quality of these services remains patchy, with estimates suggesting that up to a third of secondary schools still do not offer counselling to their pupils.

As well as the distressing impact on those who miss out on support, children’s mental health services in the NHS are left to pick up the pieces. Yet they are now buckling under the strain of unprecedented demand, with longer delays and more children being sent outrageous distances for treatment.

Meanwhile, the Children’s Society’s latest annual Good Childhood Report found evidence of a widening gender gap in children’s mental health, with more girls aged 10 to 15 unhappy with their lives or their appearance today compared to five years ago. Together with a recent report by NHS Digital highlighting a significant rise in self-harm among young women, this paints a very bleak picture of the state of our younger generation’s mental health.

The neglect of children’s emotional wellbeing is nothing short of a national scandal. We can, and must, do much more to reduce the prevalence of mental ill health in children, and reduce the stigma so that more people speak out and seek help. That is why I am leading a debate in Parliament on Tuesday, supported by MPs from all parties, to discuss how we can make sure every child receives effective and evidence-based mental health support in schools, and to demand that the Government takes bold action to translate this ambition into reality. 

Fortunately, we aren’t starting from scratch.  School-based support is at the heart of Future in Mind, the ambitious national blueprint for modernising children’s mental health care launched when I was the minister. Among the chief recommendations were a named mental health lead in each school to oversee whole-school approaches to improving mental wellbeing, including provision of counselling services and better links with specialist NHS mental health services.

An independent Commission set up by the Education Policy Institute, which I chaired, recently published its report examining the progress made in implementing this plan.  We found a number of barriers to progress including poor engagement between schools and the NHS, school leaders lacking the experience or time to commission high-quality counselling services, and heavy workloads restricting teachers’ involvement in mental health promotion.

To spark a genuine impetus for change, the Commission’s central recommendation is a new Prime Minister’s Challenge on Children’s Mental Health.  This would feature a major national programme to ensure a stronger focus on mental health and wellbeing within schools, with funded mental health training for teachers, high-quality statutory Personal, Social & Health Education (PSHE), and a stronger emphasis on mental wellbeing in the Ofsted framework.

These are just some of the measures I will be calling for in the debate.  The speech from Theresa May was a welcome start, but will count for nothing if it is not backed by radical action. 

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