This week is Mental Health Awareness Week, and I fully support the need to break the stigma and talk about our own and others’ mental health. Public health has an integral role to play in improving young people’s mental health, but we live in a country where, because of the actions of the Conservative party, the funding and the ability to access care from trained professionals are being decimated. What happens when we realise that we need support? How long do we have to wait for help? What are we doing to provide support for people who are struggling and their families, who are left to cope without sufficient support? How do the Government expect to provide support when they have cut £700 million in cash terms of the public health grant to local government between 2015-16 and 2019-20, according to the Local Government Association, of which I am a vice-president?
Today I want to speak specifically about children and young people’s mental health. NHS figures show that one in eight people under the age of 19 in England has a mental health disorder, and half of all mental health problems start before the age of 14. I recently conducted a survey of schools in my constituency. In 10 of the 11 schools that have responded to the survey so far, the number of pupils suffering with mental health problems has increased over the last five years. One saw a 15% increase in the last 12 months alone, and all but one have seen these cases becoming more severe.
I want to place on record my thanks to my hon. Friend Chris Elmore for his chairing of the all-party parliamentary group on social media and young people’s mental health and wellbeing. The group’s recent inquiry found that 27% of children who are on social network sites for three or more hours a day have symptoms of mental ill health. That stands against 12% of children who spend no time on such sites. The Government’s Online Harms White Paper concurs with research by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, which reported that there was
“moderately-strong evidence for an association between screen time and depressive symptoms.”
The Government need to take real responsibility for the children in this country and their wellbeing. Instead, we have heard that they will support further research without saying what that will be, and that they welcome industry efforts. What parent would feel reassured by that? The industry has taken some steps to regulate itself, but it is obvious that it is not doing enough. Public health cannot be left to businesses, and with the mental health of children and young people at stake, we need to look at the various contributing factors. It is not enough simply to acknowledge the problem and not to address what is seen to be one of the growing risks to our children’s mental health and wellbeing.
Let us take the next step of the process: when a child has mental health problems, how are they identified? Teachers are often the individuals on the frontline most likely to spot this need, but they are working with larger classes and increased pressures, without teaching assistants or additional support. Schools in my constituency and many across the country are doing an amazing job in trying to make appropriate provision for their pupils to deal with mental health problems—from developing their own wellbeing support to check-in sessions and peer mentors—but this is not sustainable. Schools in my constituency have told me that immediate support is usually unavailable to vulnerable children and parents; response times from overburdened mental health agencies are poor; there are long waiting lists; and early help support is limited. Because of the fall in the ability to access core public health services, schools are forced to pick up the slack despite often not having had the appropriate training or resources to do so. A quarter of 11 to 16-year-olds with a mental health disorder have self-harmed or attempted suicide, and that figure rises to as high as 46% among teenage girls with a disorder.
The Children’s Commissioner has said:
“There is a danger that we continue to have a system that fails to help children until they are so unwell that they need specialist intervention.”
Funding pressures mean many councils are being forced to cut early intervention services that support children with low-level mental health issues and avoid more serious problems in later life, which cost far more over the coming decades. If we are to improve provision of preventive and early intervention services, it is vital that the Government adequately fund public health in the forthcoming spending review, as reducing spending on public health is short-sighted and irresponsible at the best of times.