“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 and recognise how important good mental and physical health is as part of a good childhood and a successful adulthood. Whilst the majority of children surveyed in The Big Ask told us they were happy, mental health was one of the biggest worries for children, especially for teenage girls. What children mean by mental health is clearly a wide spectrum, encompassing everyday emotions like sadness and worries all the way through to fully diagnosed conditions like eating disorders.
Children having good health is the fundamental building block that is necessary for all other things to go well. In every area of my work – whether that is about an ambition for 100% attendance of children in school, for all children in care to have a loving home, or for families to get childcare that works for them – the importance of health is a recurring theme. Children tell me that struggles with mental health can make school more challenging. My recently published review of my ‘Help at Hand’ service found access to mental health support was a key issue for children in care. Families of children with disabilities want childcare that can meet the needs of their children.
That is why health has been one of my key priorities since I became Children’s Commissioner. When it comes to mental health, I want to see problems addressed as soon as they emerge. To achieve that goal I set out in my report ‘A Head Start’ a vision for every child to be getting the right early help and support with their mental health, so that problems are caught early and addressed.
But I also want to understand more about children’s experiences of inpatient care, as it is my goal that no child should be living in an institution. As we work towards that goal, I want to ensure that institutions are as safe, loving and familial as every child deserves. Tragically, we have recently seen the devastating consequences of inadequate mental health support, with the investigation into the deaths of Nadia Sharif, Christie Hartnett and Emily Moore while they were in inpatient mental health care.
My office is therefore visiting several mental health units across England to hear what children want from their care, and how their care can be improved. These visits will also inform our work to ensure that children’s voices are at the heart of reforms to the Mental Health Act, and wider healthcare systems.
But next year I will also be looking at children’s health more widely. I learnt from The Big Ask that children see physical and mental health as closely interlinked. That is why alongside an updated analysis of children’s access to mental health support early next year, I will be exploring some of the pressures on other children’s health services. Families tell me that delays in accessing specialist care for their children can place serious strain on family life, as well as children’s education.
The healthcare system is undergoing a significant transformation, with the introduction of Integrated Care Boards. This is happening at the same time as the implementation of the Independent Review of Children’s Social Care, and the Government’s SEND review. I believe that there is a real opportunity to be grasped to place children and families front and centre of all these reforms, and make sure that no child ‘falls through the gaps’ of care. Next year I want to bring together representatives from Integrated Care Boards and Local Authorities so that together we can ensure the needs of children are prioritised.
I believe that getting the right support in place for a child’s health has the power to transform every area of their life, from education to family relationships, so it is vital these reforms deliver.