31st May 2022

The next steps to improving mental health support for children

Yesterday, I spoke at a roundtable at Downing Street which was hosted by the Prime Minister and Gillian Keegan, Minister of State for Care and Mental Health.

Today, I wanted to share my thoughts more about what we can do to support children and young people with their mental health.

The Big Ask, the largest-ever survey of children in England, showed that mental health was a big worry for many young people. It also showed that this generation of children are clearly very conscious that it is impossible to separate mental and physical health. They recognise the importance of good mental health now and for their future success.

We have seen a sharp increase in the number of children experiencing mental health problems over the last two years. Because of the pandemic, the challenge is even greater. NHS surveys show that before the pandemic, in 2017, 1 in 9 children had a probable mental health disorder. That has now jumped to 1 in 6. That’s why we need to think about what we can do to support these children now. This is something I spoke about in my work analysing local NHS services (Clinical Commissioning Groups – CCGs).

This year’s report showed that in recent years good progress has been made in increasing access to mental health care for children who need it. Spending has increased, tens of thousands more children are accessing treatment and new waiting time targets and services have been introduced. Half of CCGs are now spending at least 1% of their budget on children’s mental health services. This is the NHS benchmark of how much they should be spending.

However, the pandemic has seen demand for mental health help rising. Only around a third of children with a probable mental disorder are accessing treatment, and across the country, there is far too much variation in how easy it is for children to access the care they need.

What we can do to support children

In The Big Ask, children and young people spoke about the importance of getting help early, when problems first start to emerge. They want to have the choice of accessing this support in school, online or in a place where they can drop in in the community. Children need to know where to access support, and we know that different types of support will be useful for different children.

Mental health support needs to start early, including support for new parents. I am conducting an Independent Review into the family which will look at how we can support families in the early years and throughout childhood, including putting in place the right building blocks for good wellbeing.

School can be a place to provide support of children. Often, children spoke about only needing someone who they could talk to about their problems but are worried about being taken seriously or not knowing who they could approach. By having a Whole School Approach to mental health children can feel supported and empowered. I welcome the progress on Mental Health Support Teams and want to see them available in every school, rolling this excellent new initiative out much more quickly. These early preventative measures can support children, provide advice or counselling, without needing to refer to Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS). Support in school can be complemented by a transformation of existing NHS mental health services, so more support is offered online and, in the community. Allowing children to drop in for support in a relaxed environment, rather than waiting for an appointment in a very clinical setting.

Next steps

These are some of the things that are happening to support children’s wellbeing and mental health.

Right now, my office is speaking with children about what they want to see in an early help offer, where they would like to receive help, and how adults might better support children and young people’s sense of wellbeing. I am working closely with the Government to bring children’s voices into the heart of their new Mental Health Strategy. This is a chance to make sure all children are getting the support they need as we emerge from the pandemic. And putting this support in place will pay dividends in years to come, as this heroic generation comes of age.