Last week I had the pleasure of meeting George Zito, who delivers sessions promoting positive mental health in schools on behalf of Bradford charity Inspired Neighbourhoods. An eight week programme had just begun at Belle Vue Girls School in my constituency and George described the importance of the work around self-esteem and positive thinking that they do.
“So many young people are struggling with complicated home dynamics, peer group pressure, friendship issues and the increasing stress of school expectations. Around 8,500 young people have diagnosed mental health disorders in Bradford but the numbers with lower level concerns is estimated to be at least double that. In my experience that is a considerable underestimate.”
George and his colleague Hannah deliver themed group sessions, 1:1 counselling and family therapy to hundreds of children across sixteen schools in the district. The programme is booked up for the next two years and George says that even if they doubled the provision they wouldn’t meet demand.
Only this week the Education Policy Institute (EPI) released analysis that found referrals to children’s mental health services in England had increased by 26% over the last five years but that nearly one in four were rejected. The vast majority of the rejections were because the condition or issue was not regarded as serious enough to meet the eligibility criteria.
This was George Zito’s point. If we don’t get ‘early intervention’ right, if we don’t support children properly when their emotional, behavioural or mental health concerns first emerge then their needs will only become more acute. This is what Inspired Neighbourhoods and many other voluntary sector organisations are trying to provide across the country. But funding is not easy to come by and organisations often find themselves in competition for the same pots of money.
Before I became an MP, I was an NHS Commissioner whilst also having the privilege of chairing the Bradford mental health charity, Sharing Voices. I have seen what the desperate struggle for resources means from both sides of the fence.
Barnado’s warn that the government is ‘walking into a crisis’ and worryingly a recent examination of the government’s strategy by the Joint Education and Health and Social Care Committee supports this. Published in July of this year, they concluded that the timeframes for change are too long and the plans for recruitment too slow. As a result thousands of young people will be unable to access the services and support that they need. This week’s EPI report confirms this.
“We have seen no evidence that the government’s commitment of recruiting additional therapists and supervisors has been translated into action. It is not clear how this, along with introducing local mental health support teams working with schools and colleges, will be achieved in practice given existing recruitment difficulties.”
But it also makes a crucial strategic observation that corroborates the experience of workers like George Zito, that if we don’t invest in ‘early intervention’ now then the number of children and young people diagnosed with complex mental health needs will inexorably rise in the future.
“The prioritisation of specialist services above early intervention and prevention will not improve the mental health of children and young people. Wider focus must be on taking demand out of the system. Contextual factors are hugely important for children and young people’s mental health: the well-being of their families, the communities in which they grow up, the schools they attend, and their social networks.”
The current government plans lack ambition, scale and pace. Children are being let down. Theresa May has claimed that austerity is coming to an end but her words will ring hollow to the thousands of children and young people languishing on waiting lists for mental health support. When the Chancellor announces his budget later this month our demand must be clear. We must fund our Children and Young People’s mental health services properly. Our children deserve nothing less.