Mental Health of Children and Young Adults - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:08 pm on 16th May 2019.

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Photo of The Earl of Listowel The Earl of Listowel Crossbench 12:08 pm, 16th May 2019

My Lords, I also very much welcome this debate and thank the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, for bringing it. I declare an interest as a trustee of a mental health service for adolescents in north London, the Brent Centre for Young People, which began 50 years ago. It focuses on adolescents with suicidal thoughts and tries to address their needs. I am also a trustee of the Child and Family Practice Charitable Foundation, which concentrates on interventions to support post-traumatic stress disorders in young people. I am also a patron of a charity called Best Beginnings, which has been going for maybe 10 years and has developed a video, a drama re-enactment of a mother’s experience of postnatal depression. It is harrowing, but a helpful tool to health providers and others trying to understand postnatal depression. What stands out in that film is the isolation the poor young woman experienced, and the lack of assistance and understanding from the health service.

I will say a bit more about Baby Buddy and perinatal mental health. I commend the Government for their important and significant investment in perinatal mental health. Reports have clearly shown that, by failing to address the mental health needs of mothers, we can readily harm the life chances of their children. It can have a huge impact. I am immensely proud to be a patron of Best Beginnings. In the last six or seven years, it has developed an app called Baby Buddy. This was developed with the royal colleges with the relevant experience—the Royal College of Midwives, and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. I am drawn most to its videos. The chief executive of the charity is a former BBC film producer, and there is a video of a mother breastfeeding her infant, showing mothers how to breastfeed, and of a father communicating with a young child, helping fathers to communicate with their children. I am proud that the evidence shows that this Baby Buddy app has increased initiation of breastfeeding by 9%, which is a significant improvement and above many other interventions. I mention this in the context of this debate because it is important that infants form secure attachments to their parents.

I will concentrate on the culture that children and young people grow up in and a few other principles lying behind the good mental health and emotional well-being of children and young people. I quote Sir William Utting, a respected social worker and perhaps the chief social work inspector of his time. He produced two reports in the late 1990s on the abuse of children in children’s homes. In his second report, People Like Us, published in 1997, he began by saying that the “best safeguard” for children is an “environment of overall excellence”. The culture in which our children grow up is very important. Perhaps we cannot always be excellent, but we can at least try to be good enough.

The city of Leeds has developed a strategy based on the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Everything it does, across the whole city, is founded on those principles. It has had outstanding results from inspections of child protection by Ofsted. It has recently been successful in reducing childhood obesity in young people. Again, this is put down to the culture it has created of concern for children’s welfare.

The Minister spoke helpfully about the excellent work the Government have done with social workers in the last 10 years. I would like to talk about the importance of expertise and experience. Timothy Loughton did not have a background in child protection, but took every pains to work with social workers, listen to young people in care and develop a thorough understanding of this work. Working with the noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, he produced a report called No More Blame Game, championing the status of social workers. Subsequent to Timothy Loughton we had Edward Timpson as Children’s Minister. His family had a background of fostering, he had adopted siblings and he was a practitioner in the family law courts. He had a deep understanding of the issues around supporting children and young people, particularly those who are vulnerable. From that, we have seen many good policies emerge; for instance, the appointment of chief social workers for children and families and other areas.

In terms of the culture, politicians have an important role to play. I have always been of the view that if one is going to talk about the welfare of children, one has to have worked with them to some degree. I am fortunate to have had that experience. Being a parent can be a helpful introduction, but one needs to work with children and young people, understand their vulnerabilities and difficulties, and understand that growing up is complex—we underestimate that as a culture. I see that I need to end here.

I welcome having expert practitioners at the forefront of policy as our chief social workers. Politicians need to be humble before that experience. They perhaps need to see themselves as communicators to the public of what is important, based on what they learn from those who have long experience as nurses or clinicians. That will help create a culture in which our children do much better. I look forward to the Minister’s response and apologise for speaking for so long.