Suicide and Self Harming: What are we Doing to Improve the Mental Health of our Children?

15th Apr 2016

If the health of children is a reflection of our society, then Britain has a heap of soul searching to do right now.

A recent report in a BBC Panorama documentary highlighted the shocking lapse in mental health care for children and young people.

It told of the heart wrenching story of Sara Green, a 17-year-old teenager who killed herself while in care in Stockport.

Sara had a history of self harming and was told she’d be treated within 6 weeks of entering Cheadle Royal Hospital (her care was run by the Priory Group and funded by the NHS). She was still there 9 months later – in an institution 100 miles from her family home in Humberside.

Just before she killed herself in her hospital bedroom, Sara wrote a devastating diary extract saying: “I came into hospital with one or two suicide plans, but now I have at least five.”

This dreadful story is compounded by a report just published by Centre Forum that revealed the problems young people face when trying to access mental health care. Services turn away – on average – about 25% of children and teenagers referred to them by GPs, teachers, and others, the report said.

The research noted that this was often a result of high thresholds for access to services preventing the most effective treatment of mental health problems – early intervention.

Furthermore, the report said that, as with the case of Sara Green, young people accepted for care often have to wait months for treatment – some waiting times are 10 months or more between referral and the start of treatment.

Mental Health and Wellbeing Taskforce

In February 2016, the Mental Health and Wellbeing Taskforce announced £1 billion to ensure a million more children and young people gain access to more support.

One in 10 children between the ages of 5-16 have a diagnosed mental health condition  while 75% of children and young people receive no mental health support at all.

With £9.2 billion spent annually by the NHS on mental health, poor quality services have contributed to the Department of Health projection of a 15-20 year shorter life expectancy for those with severe mental health conditions; making early intervention for children and young people even more important.

Too often their emotional wellbeing and mental health is not given the attention it needs. Far too many families have experienced poor mental health care for children and adolescents. It remains unacceptable that not every child or young person gets the help they need when and where they need it.

Some don’t get any care at all, and their problems escalate to a crisis point. This isn’t due to a lack of goodwill – there are many highly skilled and highly valued staff working with children and young people who want to make a real and lasting difference to their lives. But there are barriers in the system itself that prevent change.

To ensure we address this it will require a multi-agency approach involving key stakeholders working in partnership across all sectors, including health, local government, education and the voluntary sector.

Closing the Gap: Priorities for Essential Change in Mental Health

Ambitions outlined in Closing the Gap: Priorities for Essential Change in Mental Health for the right provisions in service delivery to aid and foster young healthy minds have been pushed forward on the government agenda to further integrate community support models and improve mental health outcomes.

It is vitally important that government strategies urgently promote and address children and young people’s mental health and that professionals identify children at higher risk of mental health problems, and learn from best practice examples around better mental health service delivery.

We must play a role in supporting parents and services to ensure young people get the quality of services required. Anyone who works with them knows that this isn’t just about funding. What is needed is a fundamental shift in culture. A whole system approach is needed focusing on prevention of mental ill health, early intervention and recovery. We owe this to young people. It is with their future in mind that we must all commit to, and invest in, this challenge.  We also need to ensure that we learn and listen to the voice of the child.

Crucially, we must make it easier for a child or young person to seek help and support in non-stigmatised settings. This is where the voluntary sector can be so valuable. We need a simpler system, breaking down the barriers which tiers create, looking at some of the innovative practices which are already happening in this country and abroad.

This blog follows on from my previous blogs on children’s mental health and voice of the child