Over the last year, the issue most often raised with me has been children’s mental health. It was top of the list in my consultation with children about my priorities for the year ahead and many children have told me about their desperate attempts to access support. Even primary school children raised concerns about anxiety. I also hear from parents, teachers and carers about their repeated frustrations when trying to get help for children who need it.
Today – World Mental Health Day – I’m publishing the first in a series of studies telling the first-hand stories of vulnerable groups of children in England, following on from the major report I produced last summer looking at childhood vulnerability. We are starting with a study on children’s mental health – ‘Children’s Voices: A review of evidence on the subjective wellbeing of children with mental health needs in England’.
It sets out the views, perspectives and experiences of children with mental health needs and gives anonymous first-hand accounts of children in England aged 17 and under who have dealt with mental health illnesses, shining a light on their experiences of support – or lack of it.
The study explains how for many the fear and stigma around mental health issues can start in the very early years of a child’s life. The accounts given by children suggest kids often see ‘mental illness’ in stereotyped, negative and limited terms, associating mental illness with people with bizarre and unpredictable behaviour and those acting in a matter that would be considered ‘out of control’, frightening, aggressive, violent or criminal. Many feel ashamed of themselves, flooded with a range of negative ideas and perceptions that they are different from others, ‘bad’, ‘out of control’, ‘stupid’ or ‘naughty’. They often find the very phrase ‘mental health’ as a frightening condition, which is normally only associated with adults.
‘Children’s Voices’ is a timely reminder of the reality facing children struggling with very difficult issues, and the need to provide them with the support and care they need.
Everyone knows that much more needs to be done to improve children’s mental health services in England. Without the proper treatment and support a whole range of additional problems arise, from school exclusions to care placements breaking down to children ending up in the youth justice system.
I want to see a wholesale shift in the scale of ambition across Government and the NHS on children’s mental health care. We need to see bold, brave action so that we give the kind of children whose voices are so clearly expressed in this study, the care they deserve.