Last week was Children’s Mental Health Week. It came at an overwhelming and difficult time for young people locally and across the nation. The coronavirus crisis, coupled with struggles that children were already experiencing, has created a melting pot of isolation, insecurity, and anxiety.
It is estimated that 1 in 6 young people aged 5 to 16 are likely to be suffering from a mental health problem. This amounts to over 2,800 children in Twickenham alone. Mental health issues run through our schools and our communities, but with families staying at home, it is easy to keep problems behind closed doors and out of sight.
Yet for these children, mental health difficulties are not out of mind. The closure of schools over the past year has disrupted both education and social connections, and for students taking exams, there has been much uncertainty. Young people have struggled to enjoy time with friends this year, also taking its toll on mental wellbeing. Being out of a school setting takes away options to talk to trusted teachers or friends face-to-face.
The provision of mental health care for children is woefully behind. As soon as I was elected in 2019, I was receiving emails from parents locally whose children were struggling with their mental health.
Some, in complete despair, were told that they would have to wait six months or a whole year before receiving the treatment they so desperately needed. It is an understatement to say that it was not good enough then and it certainly won’t cut it in the months and years to come. The availability and access to services for mental health are a long way from parity with the treatment for physical health need.
It now often falls to charities to pick up where underfunded and overstretched services fail to provide. Off the Record is one such charity in Twickenham, who provide vital free counselling and support for 1,500 children each year. This is replicated nationwide: almost 7,000 counselling sessions about coronavirus concerns have taken place through Childline. Vulnerable children deserve appropriate long-term support from sustainable services available to all. Charities of course have an important and complimentary role to play but should not be the sole lifeline for so many.
It’s for these reasons that a campaign priority of mine is to improve children’s mental health services, not only locally, but across the nation too. The longer children are forced to wait for mental health support, the worse the problem becomes and urgent action is needed to help our young people through the impact of the pandemic.
One step to helping young people is making help available to them before they reach crisis point. Providing access to mental health support in schools could be transformational to many young people, yet the lack of ambition from the Government in only promising a fifth of schools a counsellor by 2023 is woeful. That’s why I am campaigning for every school to have a counsellor as a matter of urgency. The pandemic makes the case for this even more important.
Investment is also needed in the mental health workforce. There are already a huge number of vacancies in children and adolescent mental health services. Without further investment into workforce recruitment and retainment, it will be difficult for children and young people to get access to the services they need in a timely manner.
Children’s Mental Health Week has been critical for raising awareness of these big issues, but it’s now more important than ever that we continue to ensure children and young people have the support they need all year around. It is vital that our children have the opportunity to express how they are feeling. It is clear that intervention is necessary to cope with the mental health crisis our young people face and I will continue to press the Government to provide the care that our children deserve.