Children with Mental Health Issues: We Need to Challenge the Stigma

06th Feb 2016

Big stories often break into the national consciousness, create waves and then vanish without any positive outcomes. Such was the case with a nine-year-old boy called Luke last October who made the ITV news as a result of persistent self harming.

At the time the charity Place2Be reported Luke had said: “I’ve got all this pain in my stomach and I get really angry and stuff. And… it makes me want to punch somebody. But if I do that I’ll get in trouble. So, I hit my head instead… on something hard like a wall.”

It was a heart rending story highlighting the boy’s desperation. In the same ITV report the staggering number of 800 primary school children were said to be treated for self harm in A&E during 2014.

Earlier this month students at Malvern’s Dyson Perrins CE Academy had the chance to share their experiences of mental health issues with shadow cabinet MP for mental health Luciana Berger.

Berger spent some time speaking with students who had experienced problems, telling her about the support they received in and out of school – and the challenges and pressures they continue to face.

Assistant head teacher Adam Hawkesford-Johnson said: “Schools are dealing more and more with quite complex emotional wellbeing issues and it is right that we shouldn’t work in isolation on this.”

And these numbers are shocking. Official data reportedly shows that a record number of youngsters are admitted to hospital for self-harm, eating disorders, depression and other psychological disorders each year.

Emergency admissions for psychiatric conditions soared to 17,278 in 2014, double the number five years ago. There were 15,668 admissions of young women aged 15 to 19 for cutting, burning or harming themselves, compared with 9,255 admissions in 2004.

Unbelievably, the last full study of the state of teenage mental health was published as long ago as 2004

We already know about the rising numbers of teenagers who are treated in A&E each year with serious self-inflicted injuries; thousands of them.

Not having enough friends is worse for teenagers’ health than taking no exercise, researchers say. They suggest that it is not only the elderly who suffer from the biological burden of loneliness. Scientists claim that isolation causes harmful changes to the bodies of adolescents, much as it does in older people.

The scale of the crisis that is engulfing children’s mental health is one of the most neglected corners of the health service, despite evidence of what a Times Leader recently referred to as ‘a mental illness epidemic among young people’.

The newspaper, which has launched a campaign calling for action, believes that part of the increase in self-harm is ‘a result of better reporting as the stigma attached to mental illness slowly fades’. Yet much of it must be attributed to the fast-changing culture in which teenagers grow up, vulnerable to cyberbullying and living in the distorting mirror of social media.

We also know from the Times’ findings that only 6 per cent of the NHS mental health budget goes on services for children and teenagers. This is despite three children in every classroom suffering from a diagnosable mental health problem.

Writing in the Times, Professor Tanya Byron, government advisor and one of the UK’s leading clinical psychologists, called on the political parties to prove they are serious about dealing with the crisis in their election manifestos. Three other experts representing the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Great Ormond Street Hospital and the Young Minds charity are backing Tanya Byron’s report and calling for immediate action.

On a positive note we know that a mental health champion will be appointed by every school in a £3 million pilot programme intended to identify and treat children suffering from depression, anxiety or other problems.

More than 250 schools have agreed to join the trial and will select a teacher, teaching assistant or school nurse as a mental health “point of contact”. That person will forge a relationship with a counterpart in their local NHS children’s mental health service.

The mental health of children and young people is something that should be taken very seriously and as professionals we should continue to raise awareness of this at governmental level. Supporting the emotional wellbeing of young people is crucial on their journey to fulfilling their best potential.

We need to seek to challenge the stigma surrounding mental health problems and to ensure that all children and young people receiving advocacy are helped to feel more confident to talk about their mental health.