Mental Health and Wellbeing in Schools

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:24 pm on 4th December 2018.

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Photo of Tim Farron Tim Farron Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 3:24 pm, 4th December 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I congratulate my hon. Friend Layla Moran on securing this vital debate.

Early intervention and preventive work on mental health are massively important and schools play a colossal part in it. Fifty per cent. of mental health problems in adult life take root before the age of 14; 10% of schoolchildren today have a diagnosable mental illness, which means that in an average class of 30 young people three will be living with a mental health condition. That is three children in every class. Stress about exams, fear of failure, concern about body image, bullying, and the crushing weight of the aspirations and expectations of materialism have a huge impact on people’s mental health. Unchecked, those concerns can spiral into acute long-term mental illnesses that will lead to serious problems all the way through adulthood.

The Prime Minister characterised the colossal failure to treat mental health conditions as a “burning injustice”, but that is an injustice that the Government have failed to fight in practice. There are few things more frustrating than a Government who speak the right political language in a debate but fail to deliver. Investment in preventive measures and early intervention has only got worse in recent years. Councils’ public health budgets, which include funding for school nurses and tier 1 mental health services, have been reduced by £600 million between 2015 and the present. In my constituency central Government cuts to the public health budget mean that the NHS in Cumbria currently spends only £75,000 a year on tier 1 mental health preventive care. That is just 75p per child per year. In 2015 the coalition Government agreed to allocate Cumbria £25 million a year in public health money. Now it gets only £18 million a year. That is a £7 million cut—a huge proportion. It is not just unacceptable; it is an insult. As a direct result, we no longer have any school nurses directly attached to schools anywhere in the county.

Alongside the situation I have described, there are additional pressures. Many young people with special and additional needs are at greater risk of acquiring mental health difficulties. We have a special educational needs funding system that punishes schools that take children with additional needs and rewards those that do not fulfil their responsibility; so the system compounds the difficulties. Like the rest of the hon. Members present, I get letters in my postbag about many issues of great emotional significance. They weigh heavily on all MPs as we seek to help people out of difficult situations. However, nothing keeps me awake at night like the plight of young people with mental health conditions. I have noticed in recent years that the volume of my case load taken up by that issue has rocketed. We are clearly a society that breeds poor mental health.

I am proud of the young people in Cumbria with whom I have worked and who are determined to fight for better mental health provision for themselves and their friends. In my constituency, for example, CAMHS was not available at the weekend or after school hours in south Cumbria until our community ran a campaign and forced local health bosses to change that. What an outrage that we had to fight for those changes. Alongside a focus on the provision of timely, top-quality treatment, there needs to be a focus on preventive care. That is why 2,500 mostly young people in my constituency signed the petition that I shall soon present to the House, calling for a mental health worker to be allocated to every school in Cumbria, so that we can manage to prevent problems before they arise and get out of control.

Perhaps the biggest single issue affecting young people’s mental health is eating disorders. In South Lakeland, three quarters of children reporting with an eating disorder are not seen within the target time of a month. Not a single one of those children presenting with an urgent need is seen within the target time of one week. The most appalling aspect of the situation is not just those statistics but the fact that the number of children they represent is 15 in a year. That is utter nonsense. I deal with at least one new eating disorder case among young people every single week in my constituency. Children are clearly slipping through the loopholes and are not being pushed into the system. As Rachael Maskell said, they are told that they have to come back when they are more sick as they have not yet lost sufficient weight to enter the system. That is an outrage. In 2016, the Government promised Cumbria a specialist one-to-one eating disorder service, and it has failed to materialise. Wonderful people work in CAMHS, but they do not have the support that they desperately need. As others have said, young people’s mental health is the crisis of our age. It needs more than platitudes; it needs real action, and it needs it now.