1st August 2022

Health – the Children’s Commissioner’s view

Children care about feeling happy and well and they want to be physically healthy. They reject the artificial dichotomy between physical and mental health and know how important it is to maintain good health. They also have a very good sense of what helps them do this.

What children say about Health

‘The lack of help with mental health has been the biggest thing that has stopped me and my friends from achieving what we want. It is difficult to access as we are not taken seriously, and when we are, waiting lists are so long’ – Girl, 17.

‘There needs to be more of a push towards physical fitness as it’s a real motivation booster’ – Boy, 16.

It was clear from The Big Ask that children today value their mental and physical wellbeing. They recognise how important good mental and physical health is as part of a good childhood, and a successful adulthood. While 8 in 10 children were happy or fine, 1 in 5 children worried about their mental health and this was one of the biggest worries for children. Some groups of children worried more about their mental health, with 2 in 5 teenage girls worrying about this.  

What progress we have made to deliver for children in the area of Health

  • Since The Big Ask, the office has spoken to hundreds of children about mental health. Those with acute conditions, in mental health beds in hospital, those receiving support from specialist NHS care or school Mental Health Support Teams (MHST) or community hubs, and some receiving no support at all.  
  • In The Big Ask there were 26,000 responses from children in receipt of mental health support. The office conducted visits to children in mental health hospitals as part of the qualitative research for The Big Ask. 
  • Earlier this year, the office published the annual briefing on children’s mental health. This found that in recent years, spending on children’s mental health services has increased and services are treating more children. 
  • There is still a mountain to climb before all children are getting the support they need and deserve. And since the pandemic, more children are struggling with their mental health, and at an earlier age.  
  • The office has been working to ensure the Government’s Special Education Needs and Disabilities (SEND) Green Paper leads to fundamental change for the support available to children with SEND in school, including those with mental health needs. 
  • In July, the office published a new report, ‘A Head Start: Early Support for Children’s Mental Health’. This sets out the office’s vision for children’s mental health, as a response to the Government’s Mental Health and Wellbeing Plan consultation. It was based on the views of children and young people about what they would like to see in an early mental health help offer. The six key ambitions can be found in the section below. 
  • In the past year, the office has also delivered a programme of work exploring the impact of the online world on children – in particular, on the harmful impact of online abuse. The office spoke to 120 children and young people aged 8-21 in focus groups and at a workshop of young adults, to understand and inform the role of parents in tackling sexual violence online. Mental health arose as a key theme threading through these conversations. Young people – particularly girls – spoke powerfully to us about the harmful impacts of sexualised and highly-edited/filtered online content on their mental health, self-esteem, and body-image. 

The vision for children

Now, as we emerge from this period, there is an opportunity to make sure we are prioritising children’s wellbeing in general, and, where it is needed most. The Children’s Commissioner wants children’s mental and physical health to be a top priority, with a focus on preventing ill health and increasing access to the right care, in the right place, at the right time.  Additionally, the Children’s Commissioner has called for the roll-out of Mental Health Support Teams (MHSTs) for every school by 2026/27, to provide an enhanced level of support and more connections between schools and NHS specialist services. 

The Commissioner has set out six ambitions to support children’s mental health. In the wake of the pandemic, it is more crucial than ever that we take the time to listen to them, and to give them the support they need. The six ambitions are:  

  • Ambition 1. Every family receives support to promote good mental health and wellbeing through pregnancy and the early years through Family Hubs, including mental health support for parents where needed. 
  • Ambition 2. All children are protected from harm and taught the digital skills they need to be safe online, making the online world safe and exciting place for children to have fun, learn and connect with others, and all. 
  • Ambition 3. All children have plentiful access to safe and fun spaces to play with their friends. 
  • Ambition 4. All children’s needs are met where they are and they receive support in school, through families of schools.  
  • Ambition 5. The taboo of accessing support needs to be broken by making sure children can access it quickly, locally, in their communities or online.  
  • Ambition 6. Specialist NHS support is available for any child who needs it, with no child turned away or stuck in a spiral of escalation whilst waiting for support.