Today children all over the country will be trying to cope with mental health problems. They will often be suffering in silence; many will not know where to turn to for support. Today’s World Mental Health Day reminds us how real a problem this is for so many children and challenges us reach out and support their needs.
The scale of the problem has been revealed starkly and consistently in reports over recent months. Children tell me how the pressures, risks, and sometimes threats they experience are taking a heavy toll on their wellbeing. Childline received an average of one call every 30 minutes from UK children with suicidal thoughts last year.
Latest figures show that almost a quarter of a million children and young people are receiving help from NHS mental health services, according to data from 60% of mental health trusts in England. Figures I published earlier this year suggest it isn’t enough.
So what is going on? Excessive use of social media has been linked to poor mental health problems and this must certainly be a factor. When combined with bullying it can have a terrible effect. My heart went out to the family of Felix Alexander, the 17-year-old who took his life after years of relentless bullying. The thing about social media is that it takes away the boundaries that school, social groups or communities used to provide. Online bullying that no longer stops at the end of the school day can seem relentless and 24/7 in nature when it happens.
The global nature of our media also plays its part. More and more children say they are concerned about the way they look, often judging their body through the prism of the unrealistic media images they are bombarded with. And this starts early – a third of seven to 10-year-old girls believe that they are judged on their appearance and a quarter feel the need to be perfect, according to a recent study by Girlguiding UK.
This reflects findings from the Children’s Society’s recent Good Childhood annual report, with 14% of 10 to 15-year-old girls saying they were unhappy with their lives as a whole, and 34% with their appearance. Researchers were told of girls feeling ugly or worthless. Body image problems can quickly spiral into eating disorders without these negative corrosive attitudes being challenged.
All of these reports are alarming. But when children or young people experience serious emotional or psychological problems, they need to get support and help from local services to overcome these. Sadly this is not the case. In some areas, my research showed that children were turned away from specialist mental health treatment at a rate of 1 in 4 during 2015.
This has to change and extra Government funding will go some way to doing this – it must be prioritised for the front-line. But help needs to get to children long before problems escalate into chronic conditions. Let’s remember that around three-quarters of all adult mental health problems start by the age of 18.
Children and young people are clear about what is needed: more people in schools they can talk to if they are worried; parents, teachers and other professionals being better at spotting the warning signs a child may have a mental health problem – including mood changes, loss of appetite, or difficulty concentrating; and lessons about life in school which teach children about respect and relationships.
Young people say that they would like to see drop-in services in the community. I would like to see GPs holding surgeries in school and youth clubs with the back-up training to help them provide the support young people need. More trusted help online. More support for peers and more information for parents.
A final vital change. My research showed that many of those who needed specialist mental health support had to wait for weeks and sometimes months to get an appointment. How very disappointing then that some areas were turning them away if they then missed an appointment.
Children and young people tell me that they want help from people that they believe want to help them recover. People who will be there for them, interested in them, stick with them and have the skills needed to help bring about change. These issues are not going to go away easily. Locally and nationally they must be a priority.
For those children and young people whose lives are derailed by the onset of mental health problems, the future can look uncertain and even bleak. They need help now to recover, reach their full potential and thrive as they grow up.